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Political rift appears in state compensation panel that handles legislators compensation
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SACRAMENTO  (AP) — A political rift appeared Thursday in a citizens panel that oversees compensation for California lawmakers and statewide elected officials, as the new chairman accused members of overstepping their authority on benefits.

Labor attorney Thomas Dalzell, the chairman appointed by Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown, said the commission overreached its powers last year in eliminating taxpayer-funded vehicles for lawmakers.

He also said he does not believe the panel has jurisdiction over lawmakers' daily living expenses known as per diem.

California lawmakers are the nation's highest paid, with a base annual salary of $95,290, plus per diem payments of about $30,000 a year for those who collect it.

Dalzell's statements during the panel's first meeting of the year met resistance from Republican appointees, including former chairman Charles Murray. Under Murray's leadership, the panel reduced elected officials' pay by 18 percent and eliminated the vehicle program.

"It is important that we discharge our duties as described in the constitution, and to best do that I think acting on oral motions without precise language can and has gotten this commission into trouble before," Dalzell said during the meeting.

He said there was confusion about pension and per diem issues in 2009, and action taken last year by the panel inadvertently cost taxpayers rather than saving money.

Dalzell said eliminating state-owned vehicles for lawmakers could end up costing taxpayers more in the long run because the Legislature has started paying lawmakers 53 cents per mile for travel. California had been the only state that provided vehicles for all lawmakers with unlimited use, a perk that was eliminated in December.

Murray said it was the Legislature that chose to reimburse lawmakers after they were stripped of the vehicle perk, not the commission. The Assembly and Senate decided to raise the reimbursement rate to 53 cents per mile after lawmakers returned state-owned vehicles. Previously, the Assembly reimbursed lawmakers 37 cents per mile while the Senate reimbursed 42 cents per mile.

"They are the ones to make this decision. Not this commission. So to lay this back on us, saying we cost the state, is absurd," Murray said.

The seven-member California Citizens Compensation Commission was created by voters under Proposition 112 in 1990 to set salaries, insurance and other similar benefits for state lawmakers and the eight constitutional officers elected on a statewide basis, including the governor.

In 2009, the commission was prohibited from increasing salaries during years when the state carried a budget deficit.

The commission did not take action Thursday on salaries. Commissioners directed the staff attorney to find out the scope of the panel's powers or if it needs an outside legal opinion.

The Legislature has not challenged the commission's decision to eliminate the vehicles.

Per diems are intended to compensate out-of-area lawmakers who must travel to the capital for business and are supposed to reimburse them for daily living expenses. They also receive separate reimbursements for travel and mileage.

The commission also has been trying to determine whether lawmakers should be taxed on their per diems as part of their income. The Franchise Tax Board, which administers tax collections, declined to weigh in on the matter.