Up until recently, there was a funny little loophole that let California legislators ride around in some pretty nice cars that cost taxpayers a lot of money. You're probably thinking everyone in California drives a Prius, but the fact is many politicians drive around in some expensive cars and have been getting the state to pay for most of the payments and repairs. That's all changing now.
The tax break, dating back to the 1950s, allowed state senators and assembly members to get their vehicle expenses paid for while they used them to drive to Sacramento on official business. And it made sense back when there were representatives living 300 miles away from the capitol building in Sacramento and getting a flight was expensive and impractical. But in light of California's never-ending budget crises, the program was one of many to get slashed in the last round of fiscal belt-tightening.
The Associated Press reported Wednesday that, in light of this bonus ending soon, many politicians used taxpayer money to do some last-minute fixes on their vehicles – some doing thousands of dollars in repairs right before they purchased the vehicles themselves for personal use. Some of these were thousands of dollars to repair cosmetic issues and extensive checks that would be considered non-essential. But hey, if the state's still paying...
A 2009 article by the Los Angeles Times reported over a three-year period, the state of California spent $3.2 million on providing vehicles for state legislators, fueling them and repairing them. You can see how this didn't go over well with tax groups and those watchdogs with a careful eye on government spending.
The state spreads part of the purchase price of a car over a four-year "lease" to the lawmaker, factoring in depreciation, and pays 90% of the monthly cost or up to $350, whichever is less. Because lawmakers pay a small portion of the cost, they are permitted to use the cars for "incidental" personal travel, according to Jon Waldie, the Assembly's chief administrative officer.
Waldie said there is no manual defining "incidental," but lawmakers are instructed that the 10% or so they pay for the car is a guideline for the amount of nonofficial use.
So if someone was paid $500 a month to lease, say, a Cadillac STS that stickered for $55,000, he or she would've only paid $150 per month out of pocket as the state would've covered the rest.
And even if someone who represented a district in LA and flew to Sacramento every time would still benefit from the program. Even more outrageous was the fact someone other than the elected official could crash the car and the state would still pay the repairs. It's no wonder that in this post-recession climate that a program like this would get axed.
In this most recent development, State Senator Bob Dutton had almost $6,000 in repairs to his 2005 Chevy Tahoe, which included "a dent in the rear bumper fixed, the power steering and brakes replaced, and a detailed cleaning." He then bought it outright for $12,000 in campaign funds and later sold it to a dealership for $11,000. Dutton is now under investigation by the Fair Political Practices Commission over the incident.
Another senator had the state foot the bill for an $80 set of center caps for his Escalade. Those and a $500 service, fell under the category of necessary maintenance, he said. One representative took her five-year-old Prius in for an $800 set of repairs that included an upgrade to her navigation system, just before the state was no longer going to pay for it.
So it turns out California lawmakers haven't been driving around in government issue Malibus and instead in some relatively nice rides with some generous equipment upgrades. You might think they were just sticking to the scheduled maintenance intervals put in the owner's manuals, but you can't really believe people make it a habit of investing thousands of dollars into repairs for a car they don't plan on keeping much longer.
Photo credit Modern Relics, InlandPolitics