By Torey Van Oot
Published: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011 – 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011 – 9:44 am

Dozens of state legislators are turning in their car keys this week, as a decades-old program providing them with state-purchased vehicles comes to an end.

Taxpayers have picked up most of the tab for cars purchased for members of the state Legislature, covering up to $285 of a monthly lease as well as gas, insurance and maintenance costs. Legislators paid the remaining cost of the lease for whatever car they chose.

But an independent panel that governs lawmakers’ pay put the brakes on the perk earlier this year, instructing the Legislature to cut the program by December.

The program’s demise hasn’t exactly come as a surprise to lawmakers, who have watched budget deficits grow and their approval ratings drop.

“You read the papers,” said Sen. Doug LaMalfa, R-Richvale. “The stories that are written (about the cars) are always unfavorable.”

But the new car program could end up digging deeper into taxpayers’ pockets.

The April resolution ending the car program called for giving legislators an additional $300 a month to offset the cost of driving on the job. Members of the California Citizens Compensation Commission supporting the resolution argued that the allowances would amount to $432,000 a year, halving the state’s spending on legislators’ driving.

But state Controller John Chiang, pointing to advice from the state attorney general, told the Legislature last month that the panel did not have the authority to create a new car allowance. Current state law, the opinion said, only authorizes legislators to be reimbursed at up to 55.5 cents a mile – the current rate for state employees.

While the Assembly and the Senate have not settled on a reimbursement rate, a mileage-based route could prove more expensive for the state, especially in the case of legislators who represent expansive districts.

Driving as few as 540 miles a month for meetings, constituent events and trips to and from the Capitol could result in a legislator pocketing more than the $300 proposed allowance in mileage reimbursement.

“My educated guess, since that’s what it would be at this point, is that it would probably cost the Assembly more than the current program we have. But we will do what we can to keep that down,” Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said.

Bob Stern, former president of the recently closed Center for Governmental Studies, said cutting the program is “worth doing” even if it costs the state more in the end.

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