Who pays to fix a state legislator’s car?

first_img“The vehicle is a state asset and so our responsibility is to make sure that that asset is in top condition,” said Assemblyman Hector de la Torre, D-South Gate, chairman of the Assembly Rules Committee that oversees the car-lease program. “So rather than get into a whole rigmarole” over who is responsible or whether the crash happened on official business, de la Torre said, “it’s just simpler and cleaner for the state to fix the car.” The state Senate, which also buys cars for senators, has a slightly different policy. Senators are billed for any damage they cause to their vehicles while on personal business or for accidents caused by family members, said Glenda Smith, director of Senate Rules accounting. By comparison, the city of Los Angeles does not allow family members to drive publicly owned vehicles. City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo recently came under fire after it was discovered that his wife, Michelle, was at the wheel of his city-owned SUV when it was damaged three years ago. The city paid the $1,222 repair bill. After the incident was disclosed – including the news that Michelle Delgadillo was driving with a suspended license – an embarrassed Delgadillo wrote a personal check to reimburse the city. But relatively little outcry has been raised over state lawmakers doing almost the same thing, simply because it is allowed under Assembly rules. The Assembly has been paying any and all claims under the policy that dates back at least 10 years. That would include the $1,918 in damage to a minivan driven by Linda Nicolay-Nation, the wife of then-Assemblyman Joe Nation, D-San Rafael, in September 2002. Nicolay-Nation reported that she bumped into a pole while backing out of a driveway. Taxpayers also paid for the $2,218 in front-end damage to a 2001 Dodge Intrepid driven by the teenage daughter of then-Assemblywoman Virginia Strom-Martin, D-Santa Rosa, in October 2002. At the time, Strom-Martin said her daughter, Caitlin, rear-ended a truck on her way to school and had been using her mother’s car because hers was in the shop for repairs. Strom-Martin defended her daughter’s use of the state vehicle and the Assembly’s repair policy: “I just think you have to take the circumstances into consideration. In some cases it’s simply warranted, when there is no other option, but it’s worth, I suppose, taking another look at.” Lawmakers, who earn a $113,000 annual salary, receive up to $500 a month to lease a car of their choice. Taxpayers also cover gasoline and maintenance expenses. As with every state-owned vehicle, the state carries no insurance on the cars, but instead the cars are covered for public liability and property damage – so the state pays the bills when a lawmaker is at fault. Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, stated he was not on state business when the hood of his 2003 Ford Explorer was crushed by ice that fell from a building outside a condominium in the Sierra Nevada. Taxpayers footed the $1,402 repair bill. Then-Assemblyman and now-Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, said he hit a pole and damaged the side of his car: at a cost of $1,112. A few lawmaker crashes have been spectacular – and expensive. Then-Assemblyman Jerome Horton was talking on his cell phone when he drove his 2001 Chevrolet Tahoe through a Southern California intersection last year and, authorities said, failed to yield to an approaching vehicle. The repair bill was $11,807. Still, few of the crashes have resulted in injuries and about half cost less than $1,000 to repair. But for the most part, the claims share a common theme: When their cars get a ding on the door or a scratch on the bumper, legislators – unlike most other drivers who worry about a deductible or how it might affect their premium – rush to the body shop for repairs. “That’s the sort of thing that happens when you have absolutely no skin in the game, none of your own money at risk,” said Judy Dugan, research director with the Foundation for Taxpayer & Consumer Rights. “Most people when they get a door ding, they don’t go out and get it fixed.” [email protected] (916) 441-4651160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! Records show that lawmakers, staffers and other employees of the Assembly and Senate have filed more than 200 insurance-related claims for crashing their cars, getting hit by other vehicles, colliding with bicyclists, cracked windshields and vandalism – costing taxpayers $338,057. It’s unclear how much of that money was ultimately recovered from insurance carriers. But the benefit likely helped lawmakers save thousands of dollars of their own money by avoiding premium increases to their personal insurance policies. “It is outrageous that taxpayers should be forced to pay for the damage to a vehicle given to a politician but driven by a family member and damaged by someone who isn’t even an elected officer,” said Jon Coupal, president of Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the state’s largest taxpayer-advocacy organization. “That makes no sense at all,” Coupal said. “That is a policy that is most definitely contrary to public interest.” But those responsible for carrying out the policy say it makes sense because the cars are owned by the Assembly, leased to the legislators and later sold at auction. The state, they say, is ultimately responsible for repairing any damage. SACRAMENTO – Suppose you work for a business that lets you drive a company car. But your spouse decides to take it for a spin and crashes into a pole in the driveway. Who should pay for the damage? If the “business” is the California Legislature – and if you’re one of the 80 lawmakers elected to the Assembly – it’s taxpayers who foot the bill. In addition to a car of their choosing, Assembly members get a benefit that pays to fix any damage to the vehicle – no matter who is driving and whether it’s being used for official business. That policy is one reason taxpayers have forked over more than $300,000 in the past five years to repair Assembly members’ vehicles, according to a San Jose Mercury News review of public documents. last_img

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