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Panel not authorized to grant lawmakers car allowance, lawyers say

November 21, 2011 |  5:21 pm

California lawmakers who have been told to give up their state-owned cars Dec. 1 cannot receive a $300 transportation allowance instead because a citizens panel that approved it lacked the authority to grant such a benefit, according to attorneys for the state.

As a result, lawmakers will have to rely on being reimbursed 55.5 cents per mile for using their personal cars on state business, wrote Richard Chivaro, chief counsel for the state Controller’s Office in a letter obtained by the Los Angeles Times on Monday.

Chivaro cited a legal opinion he solicited from the office of state Atty. Gen. Kamala D. Harris concluding that the California Citizens Compensation Commission, appointed by the governor, overstepped its authority.

The state Constitution, the opinion said, "only permits the Commission to adjust salary and benefits. It does not authorize the Commission to create or to adjust automobile allowances, which is not salary or benefits." The commission could have increased lawmakers' salaries $300 a month and stayed within its legal mandate, according to the opinion written by Deputy Atty. Gen. Tamar Pachter.

Lawmakers had indicated that if the allowance was legal, they were entitled to get both the $300 and mileage reimbursement.

The opinion stops short of declaring that the commission’s decision to take away the state cars was unlawful but notes that an attorney for the Legislature believes "that the Commission was not authorized either to eliminate the vehicle lease program or to substitute for it a $300 monthly automobile allowance."

Despite the Legislature’s position, the Senate and Assembly are not planning to force the issue and try to overturn the commission’s action taking away the cars this year, representatives said. "We will not challenge the Commission’s action on the car issue,"  said Mark Hedlund, a spokesman for Senate President Pro Tem. Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). "Senators are in the process of turning in their vehicles, and the Senate will proceed with the sale of the vehicles."

Asked whether the loss of the $300 allowance will cause financial problems for legislators, Hedlund said, "Whether or not some senators will experience financial hardship, the decision has been made and we will abide by it."

--Patrick McGreevy in Sacramento