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State panel cuts some lawmaker benefits, perks [Updated]

June 30, 2009 | 11:50 am

A state panel today cut car allowances, health coverage and tax-free living-expense payments for California legislators. The 18% reduction by the California Citizens Compensation Commission follows an earlier pay cut, also 18%, enacted to affect new lawmakers after next year.

The decrease in benefits will take effect Dec. 1. The commission’s attorney said it lacks the authority to adjust the per-diem payments.

But after the 5-0 vote, Chairman Charles Murray said: "We have a job to do on our part to solve the budget problem." The panel said its move would save $1.2 million annually.

[Updated at 1:25 p.m.: Murray said he felt confident that the commission was on solid legal ground after he consulted with outside attorneys. And the budget crisis requires the state’s 120 legislators and 12 statewide elected officials to share the sacrifice being experienced by most Californians during the economic recession, he said.

The commission, whose members are appointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, was created in 1990 when California voters approved a proposition taking out of elected officials’ hands the authority to set their own salaries and benefits.

California lawmakers are the highest paid in the country, and can receive a car of their choosing for use in their districts, as well as an unlimited gas card. The state has spent $3.2 million during the last three years buying cars for legislators, covering gas cards and paying to repair the vehicles when they break down or are crashed, The Times reported this month.

"You have some people out there with vehicles worth $54,000," said Commissioner John Stites II, an L.A. County sheriff’s sergeant.

The state pays $350 of each car’s monthly cost. The commission action would cut that by $63, which legislators would have to absorb. Lawmakers also get $173 each day—about $36,000 a year-- in tax-free per diem expenses meant to defray the cost of living in Sacramento while the Legislature is in session.

"I feel that is a lot of money,’’ said Commissioner Kathy Sands. "The $173 really isn’t justifiable."

Murray noted that most state employees traveling to Sacramento for work get $124 per diem. The commission’s latest action, if it stands, would cut legislators’ per diem by about $6,480 a year.

The panel also voted to cut by 18% the state’s funding of health, vision, dental, disability and life insurance for state elected officials, costing each affected official about $3,600 annually. The action would save the state about $475,000 per year, according to Commissioner Scott Somers.]

-- Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento