A Rundown of Legislators Taking Californians for a Ride (And Getting into Crashes)

Most children are told not to talk to or accept car rides from strangers. Let me add one wrinkle to this cautionary list, which is applicable to Californians of any age, best not to accept a ride from a legislator.

Amid growing debate over whether taxpayers should foot most of the bill for California legislators' cars, gas and maintenance, now comes word that Department of Motor Vehicle examiners everywhere may have been too lenient when giving our lawmakers drivers licenses.

Our representatives are mired not only in partisan gridlock, but also in the kind that causes traffic jams. Over the past half decade, vehicle accident claims by lawmakers were well above the national average.

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Even though I remember my drivers' education classes with the same fondness that many recall root canals, it seems some of our legislators could benefit from a quick refresher on driving safety. However, it is worth not only mentioning, but emphasizing, that legislators were not always at fault.

It won't help legislators' already dismal approval ratings much once Californians realize that some of our legislators aren't particularly apt at navigating the minefields of the state capitol or the streets of California. The inability of our lawmakers to agree on a budget solution or apparently in many cases to employ safe driving practices is, to say the least, problematic. Some of our legislators' car insurance claims are on us.

Over the last five years, lawmakers filed 122 claims, which in total cost the taxpayers over $765,000. In the majority of cases, however, the state owed less than $4,000 based on the legislator's claim. In addition, more than half of that total bill (almost $362,000) stemmed from one incident related to Senator Carole Migden's (D-San Francisco) erratic driving and rear ending of a vehicle which caused a chain reaction. A year earlier, Sen. Migden, hit a bus costing the state about $5,000. Sen. Migden has stated that the first incident might have been due to a reaction to leukemia treatments.

Another senator from San Francisco, Leland Yee (D) racked up about $34,000 in claims, the overwhelming majority of which was based on an accident in which his wife hit a disabled vehicle while bringing Sen. Yee to the airport. Yes, taxpayers may also foot the bill for incidents that occur when a lawmakers' family member is driving a state-provided vehicle.

Not to be outdone by senators, members of the assembly have also significantly contributed to the states' $765,000 tab. Assemblywoman Mary Salas' (D-Chula Vista) four claims (including colliding with another car, striking concrete guards and backing into a post) added about $28,000 to the state's tab.

Lest anyone think this problem does not stretch to both sides of the aisle, Assemblyman Rick Keene (R-Chico), filed claims costing the state approximately $25,000 based on six incidents, including rear ending another car, hitting a fixed object in a parking lot, and backing into a stationary object. Senator Mimi Walters (R-Laguna Hills) and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth (R-Santa Clarita) filed claims based on incidents involving hitting their personal vehicles with their state-provided vehicles.

Our lawmakers have done something in a bipartisan manner. Unfortunately, it was billing the taxpayers for car damage.

The question is whether taxpayers save money under the current system, which costs us about $1 million per year. Proponents of the status quo claim that it would be more expensive to reimburse lawmakers based on each mile of driving their own vehicles on state business. An independent commission that sets benefits and salaries of elected officials will meet next week to, among other things, decide this issue.

Jessica Levinson writes about the intersection of law and government every Monday. She is an Adjunct Professor at Loyola Law School and the Director of Political Reform at a non-profit, non-partisan think tank.

The photo used on this post is by Flickr user ryangs. It was used under a Creative Commons License.

About the Author

Jessica Levinson is an Associate Clinical Professor at Loyola Law School. She focuses on the intersection of law and government.
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