Last week I wrote about the fact that vehicle accident claims by lawmakers driving in state-provided cars were well above the national average. That will no longer be a problem, as California's Citizens Compensation Commission, charged with setting legislators' salary and benefits, voted last week to give legislators a monthly transportation stipend of $300 to offset the costs of official travel in their personal vehicles. Gone are the days of California legislators being the only lawmakers in the country to each receive taxpayer sponsored-cars. Under the old program, lawmakers received taxpayer funds for gas, and maintenance costs of a car costing up to $285 per month.
Is the new car allowance fair?
All 120 lawmakers, regardless of the size of their districts receive a $300 per month stipend. In California there are 40 State Senators, each representing over 800,000 people, and 80 members of the Assembly, representing districts half that size.
While the number of people in each district should be roughly the same, there is enormous variation in the size of the districts. The 38th district for instance, encompassing San Bernardino county, looks to be many, many tens the size of the 42nd district, which encompasses Beverly Hills and West Hollywood.
A one-size-fits-all approach will likely end up hurting those lawmakers whose districts cover vast expanses and who must drive long distances to meet with their dispersed constituents. Lawmakers in heavily populated areas, while fighting traffic, would face no such hardship in order to meet with their constituents.
Was the decision to strip lawmakers of their cars legal?
Last Wednesday, the day before the commission met to determine whether lawmakers would continue to receive cars on the taxpayers' dime, Governor Jerry Brown appointed two Democrats to fill vacancies on the seven-member commission. The commission is otherwise dominated by individuals appointed by former Governor Schwarzenegger.
One of Brown's appointee's was absent from the vote, the other openly questioned the commission's legal authority over legislative travel. The other commissioners voted against his suggestion to spend time researching the issue and instead opted to kill the car program.
There appears to be no definitive verdict from the courts on the legality of the commission's actions.
Was the decision to kill the car program just for the sake of appearances?
It frankly looks terrible that so many Californians are struggling while their representatives are driving around in taxpayer purchased vehicles. But the question is, as bad as it looked, was the old car program actually good policy? The new program will cost about $432,000 per year--$300 x 12 (months) x 120 (legislators).
Commissioner John Stites II stated that the new plan would practically halve the amount the state spends on legislators' driving expenses. Indeed, the commission said the change would save more than $2.3 million over the next half decade. The state pays about $7,300 per year for those state legislators who have state cars. About two-thirds of legislators had accepted state-purchased cars.
The truth is that we don't like our legislators much. Their approval ratings make me wonder if they even have the support of family members and staffers anymore. But we should be careful to guard against policy that does little more than punish.
The decision to become a legislator should not mean taking a vow of poverty. Lawmakers should not have to spend their own money to travel their districts on official business. The job should not be one attainable only by the independently wealthy. However, being a public servant need not be a financial boon either. Representatives work for their constituents, not for-profit corporations.
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.