Get ready for Taxpayer Car Abuse II.
Now that California legislators have turned in their taxpayer-provided rides after a citizen oversight committee pulled the plug on the perk, we are being warned this will cost the state more.
Why? Because they are now entitled to reimbursement at the same rate as state workers when they use their personal vehicles for state business. What’s the state rate? Hope you’re sitting down. It is 55.5 cents per mile.
The IRS allowance for tax purposes is 51 cents per mile. A quick survey of five different private sector employees who live in Manteca shows their employer reimbursement for using their personal vehicles for business ranges from 25 cents to 42 cents per mile.
In short, the politicians - and state workers - are still getting a much better deal on mileage reimbursement than the people who are taxed to foot the bill. No surprise there.
There is nothing stopping lawmakers from lowering the official state mileage rate. State law is pretty clear. There is no requirement that employers reimburse employees for using their vehicles for business at a specific level. The rules just have to be consistent for all employees.
The old system provided lawmakers with $285 a month toward the lease of the vehicle of their choice plus gas, insurance, and maintenance costs.
The California Citizens Compensation Commission in April adopted a resolution saying mileage allowance should be capped at $300 a month for lawmakers. State Controller John Chiang - on advice of the state attorney general - announced last month that the panel had no authority to impose a different limit than what state workers receive.
A lawmaker would reach the $300 level in 540 miles at the existing state mileage reimbursement level.
Had the panel’s recommendation been legal, taxpayers would have saved $432,000 a year under the new system. That is why hired hands of lawmakers are now warning the cost saving move will cost taxpayers more.
There’s a simple solution. The legislature needs to adopt rules that prohibit lawmakers from driving more than 540 miles a month on state business.
No other state employee paid with tax dollars has carte blanche on how much they can drive. Someone restricts their movements. That’s not the case with lawmakers.
Yes, many have big districts. But here’s the rub: Most of their trips to see constituents are non-essential. They are essentially campaign trips in disguise. There is no need for taxpayers to have lawmakers present resolutions that they crank out by the thousands every year in person in their district, nor is there a need to press flesh with local officials. They can communicate by phone, Skype, video conferencing or a host of other amazing technologies that don’t require 55.5 cents per mile to do.
Obviously, if a committee is on a fact-finding trip to view state installations or such that would be mileage excluded from a limit on each specific member.
The argument that just restrictions would make the lawmakers less accessible to their constituents is garbage. If that’s the case, give them unlimited mileage and jettison field staffs and field offices.
You can’t influence legislation with a face-to-face lasting minutes - if that - or glad handing if you aren’t a lobbyist with tons of money to give away. What it really does is give the incumbent the built-in advantage of being able to market themselves to voters on taxpayers’ dimes on trips that aren’t really essential for state business.
And before you start shedding tears, remember this: When the legislature is in session each member receives $162 tax-free allowances each day on top of a nation-leading salary of $113,098 per year.
For the rest of us who would be taxed on such an allowance, that’s the equivalent of making about $240 extra a day or $30 an hour.
Even if they had to rent an apartment in Sacramento on top of their district residence, they are making money. You can find an apartment easily for $1,000 a month. Assuming the legislature is in session 20 days a month, they are taking in the equivalent of $4,800 more a month if that allowance were taxed.
Don’t worry. Finding a way to legally restrict legislators to $300 a month in mileage reimbursement won’t drive them to the poor house.
This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at email@example.com or 209-249-3519.