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California legislators’ car perk drives some buyer’s remorse

Reporting from Sacramento -- The “Bordeaux red” 2011 Lincoln MKZ Hybrid, with heated leather seats and a $39,975 price tag, wasn’t intended to be an airport taxi.

Taxpayers bought the car last year to serve as state Sen. Sam Blakeslee’s full-time ride — a perk granted to California lawmakers at public expense.

But the San Luis Obispo Republican soon had a change of heart. With many Californians hurting during a tough economy, his office tried to cancel the request.

According to state records and interviews, the local dealership scoffed. So Gregory Schmidt, the Senate’s top administrator in charge of the car program, folded the Lincoln into the small fleet that shuttles legislators back and forth to the airport.

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“It’s kind of annoying that this even occurred,” he said.

As of this spring, about 80 of the Legislature’s 120 members were taking advantage of the program. But Blakeslee’s decision not to take delivery of the car was unusual. It also meant that his $197.21-share of the monthly payments was going unpaid. Taxpayers were footing the rest of the bill.

After being asked about the situation by The Times, Blakeslee’s office said he had decided to pay his portion each month going forward, and $986.05 retroactively.

A similar chain of events landed a 2011 Buick LaCrosse, bought for Sen. Kevin De Leon (D-Los Angeles), in mothballs in a Sacramento-area warehouse.

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Within days of picking up the $39,109 vehicle in January, De Leon tried to return it, said Dan Reeves, his chief of staff. But the dealership wouldn’t take it back.

So Schmidt begrudgingly took possession of the sedan and has stowed it in a warehouse under lock and key — “probably a tarp over it,” he said — until he can figure out what to do next.

A quick resale, Schmidt said, is unappealing because cars lose value the moment they’re driven off the lot. “What do you want me to do?” he said. “I’m not keeping it because I enjoy keeping a car.”

Blakeslee decided to drive his family car after determining that “it was perfectly adequate” for his commute between San Luis Obispo and the capital, his chief of staff, Christine Robertson, said in a statement.

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De Leon now uses a Senate pool car, a 2008 Toyota Prius, free of charge, according to his office. He made his portion of the Buick payments, $186.83, for two months.

Both lawmakers declined to comment for this story. Together, their cases of buyer’s remorse cost taxpayers close to $80,000. But the two abandoned luxury sedans are not the first cars bought for De Leon and Blakeslee at taxpayer expense. As Assembly members, De Leon drove a $30,905 Toyota Camry Hybrid purchased in 2007 and Blakeslee had a $42,848 Toyota Highlander Hybrid, bought the same year.

When the two lawmakers moved on to the state Senate last year, their old cars were sold at auction for a fraction of their purchase prices — $7,000 and $15,025 respectively, according to Jon Waldie, chief administrator of the Assembly.

The 2011 cars ordered by Blakeslee and De Leon are among the most expensive in the Senate’s fleet. Only four lawmakers drive vehicles that cost more than $40,000. The most expensive is a $54,830 Cadillac STS V-8 purchased for Sen. Ron Calderon (D-Montebello) in 2006.

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California lawmakers’ car perk long has been a flashpoint of public outrage. In April, a citizens commission charged with setting state officials’ salaries and benefits stripped legislators of their cars and free gas. The new rules, which replace the vehicle perk with a $300 monthly transportation allowance, go into effect in December.

Still, the actions of Blakeslee and De Leon have raised hackles.

“If you’re going to order an expensive car, don’t be a coward. Drive it and let everybody see this is what you’re charging to the taxpayers,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayer Assn. “All of sudden they’ve gotten religion and they don’t want to be seen in it. They should have thought about that in the first place.”

shane.goldmacher@latimes.com


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