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Per diem fight: Legislators don’t want perk reduced

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POSTED November 8, 2009 1:57 a.m.
How much money do you spend a day on housing and basics such as electricity and food on your workdays?

Is it over $225 a day or $4,500 in a typical month of 20 work days?

That is, however, what your typical over challenged California legislator puts in their pocket every day they work courtesy of you and me to pay for their basic needs. That is on top of an $116,208 a year salary plus a car allowance of $350 to $400 a month for automobile leases including free gas.

Now folks up in Sacramento would probably cry foul over the $225 figure. They’ll tell you they get only $173 a day or up to $35,000 a year based on a maximum of about 200 days of work. There’s just one little problem with that – the $173 is tax-free. It is the same as you and me getting around $225.

One can understand why they need per diem. If you’re from Los Angeles and you’ve got to be in Sacramento that means you have two households to maintain. Rent an apartment for $1,000 a month and that leaves you $2,460 for other related living expenses if the legislature is in session for 20 days in a typical month. You don’t have to worry about a car or gas for it so you could probably get by with no problem at all unless, of course, you have caviar tastes.

Which bring us to the coronary that many legislators are having over the Citizens Compensation Commission slashing their benefits – including top-flight health care – by 18 percent. They’re not squawking about the 18 percent cut in their salary that also kicks in Dec. 1, but they are offended by the benefit cut arguing the commission doesn’t have the authority to do so.

The 18 percent cuts, by the way reflects what the typical state worker loses with two furlough days. It’s all part of sharing the pain, right? Well, that apparently is only supposed to apply to California taxpayers and state workers.

One mustn’t put undo financial worries on our legislators as they go about trying to get us out of the problems they got us into in the first place. It might have them worried about how they are going to be paying their bills and put food on the table. Come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea. Back when we had citizen legislators who actually had to worry about such trivial personal matters, government was a lot smaller and less intrusive.

The 18 percent cut across the board would probably put them almost in the same boat as most Californians. And while we’re at it, don’t just make the per diem 18 percent less but make it taxable under the same laws that apply to the rest of us. That means the legislators would have to produce receipts and – depending upon whether it is the federal or state tax code – to actually spend more than they get in per diem to deduct the amount of the per diem. If that doesn’t make sense to you, just examine the IRS rules for a working stiff’s business deductions when they are paid in a flat amount instead of paid back for actual expenses.

The IRS has such a rule in place because they know how generous some employers can be to reward their favored workers not to mention how some will be a bit dishonest about their use of the money. Regardless, the legislators that take per diem money should also deal with the same bizarre and regressive rules the rest of us do when it comes to taxes.

Speaking of taxes, since the state isn’t issuing company cars per se shouldn’t the value of the lease beyond basic transportation be taxed as well? It is a gift or a perk, not a reimbursement in the truest sense. You just need a basic vehicle to get around. You don’t need an Escalade.

As for the free gas, make the legislators do a mileage log book indicating if they were on official business in order to escape being taxed on the gas allowance. Nor should they be allowed to include mileage or gas consumption when they drive to and from work at the State Capitol and their Sacramento area home away from home. The rest of us can’t deduct such mileage or gas use going to and from work so why should a legislator?

The bottom line despite their whining to the contrary, a legislator is treated as a privileged citizen in this state by being able to thumb their noses up at tax codes that apply to the rest of us while going far beyond basic when it comes to their home away from home expenses on our dime.
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