Assembly car allowances drive up budget costs

Luis Alejo

Assemblyman Luis Alejo will be driving a 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid
back and forth from Sacramento. His monthly lease payment for the
$37,000 sport utility vehicle: $104.31.
By Donna Jones, Santa Cruz Sentinel, Calif.

Assemblyman Luis Alejo will be driving a 2011 Ford Escape Hybrid back and forth from Sacramento.

His monthly lease payment for the $37,000 sport utility vehicle: $104.31.

Alejo’s new ride comes so cheap because the lease is subsidized under a decades-old state Assembly program aimed at covering travel expenses tied to government business. His office budget picks up the remainder of the cost: $276 a month.

Assemblyman Bill Monning drives a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid through the program; former Assemblyman John Laird, now state secretary for natural resources, said he drove a “low-cost” Buick during his first two terms and a Camry Hybrid during his last. In his new job, he has access to a pool car for government business.

At the local level, many officials receive monthly car allowances.

But in a time of austerity, such practices are coming under increased scrutiny. Gov. Jerry Brown wants to cut back on the state’s fleet of cars.

“People are on edge because of the economy,” said Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. “When everyone is doing well, many taxpayers are less critical. But when people are having trouble meeting mortgages, meeting the rent, they don’t want to hear of anything that hints of luxury spending on vehicles.”

Alejo’s vehicle choice received broad media attention as the most expensive of nine purchased for members of the Assembly in the past year, according to documents obtained by the Santa Cruz Sentinel from the Assembly Rules Committee.

The documents also show 15 Assembly members drive vehicles that came with higher price tags when they were purchased between 2005 and 2009. Most are hybrid SUVs; the Toyota Highlander Hybrid was particularly popular. Nine are driven by Republicans, six by Democrats.

Monning pays $61.15 for his leased Camry, purchased in 2006 for $33,000, the documents say. His office picks up the remaining $155.32.

In a written statement, Alejo spokeswoman Marva Diaz said Alejo, who, like Monning, earns $95,291 annually as an assemblyman, drives 348 miles round trip each week between his district office in Salinas and Sacramento. In addition, he drives to meet with constituents on a weekly basis. His district, the 28th, is one of the state’s largest, covering 4,353 square miles and running 148 miles between its northwest and southeast corners, she said.

“Over the years, it has become clear that leasing cars is a cost-effective way for legislators to effectively represent their districts,” Diaz said.

Assembly Chief Administrative Officer John Waldie said all members are eligible to participate in the program. Those who don’t can be reimbursed for job-related travel at 44.5 cents per mile.

“On many occasions, it’s less expensive to have the Assembly pick up leased cars,” said Waldie, who recalled his father driving a state car when he served in the Assembly in 1950s and ’60s.

Fifty of 79 Assembly members are participating in the program.