What California needs: Better drivers in the legislature

Sacramento BeeApril 10, 2011 

SACRAMENTO — Sen. Doug LaMalfa billed the state $1,317.12 for hitting a raccoon with his state-issued car.

Former Assemblywoman Mary Salas drove her state car into a post on one trip, into a concrete guardrail on another and later ran a red light, hitting a vehicle. Her four claims cost nearly $28,000.

Assemblyman Cameron Smyth and Sen. Mimi Walters, meanwhile, each filed claims for hitting their personal vehicles with their state-issued cars.

With approval ratings hovering in the teens, California lawmakers are often criticized for failing to solve the state's problems.

Turns out they're not always the best drivers, either.

A review of vehicle claims paid on lawmakers' state-issued cars shows they filed 122 claims over the past five years – roughly one for every four vehicles each year, costing taxpayers more than $768,000.

Of 122 claims lawmakers filed from 2006 through 2010, 59 involved what the insurance industry would consider collisions. For a fleet that ranged between 103 and 111 vehicles, that's about 11 collision claims each year per 100 vehicles.

The national average for collision claims in 2008-10 was 7.5 per 100 passenger cars each year and 6.1 per 100 SUVs each year, according to Kim Hazelbaker, senior vice president at the Highway Loss Data Institute, an insurance industry data center.

The lawmakers' claim data were first sought by the California Citizens Compensation Commission, which this week convenes its annual meeting to consider state officials' pay and benefits.

The panel cut legislative pay by 18 percent in 2009. This year, the chairman is focused on axing the only-in-California perk that provides lawmakers a car, gas and maintenance paid largely by taxpayers.

Legislative administrators contend that even with the cost of insurance, accidents and other damage claims, the current system is cheaper for taxpayers than paying lawmakers a per-mile amount to use their personal vehicles for state business.

About half of the 122 claims filed by lawmakers between January 2006 and the end of 2010 involved cracked windshields, damage from roadway debris, random acts of vandalism and quirky incidents.

LaMalfa, R-Richvale, remembers well the day in 2007 when he clipped a raccoon with his state-issued Mustang in rural Glenn County, causing $1,317 in damage.

"I felt horrible, the poor critter. It was kind of on a bit of a corner and he darts out … "

LaMalfa, then in the Assembly, said he tried "to go the cheap route on it and get some aluminum and pop rivets to hold it together," but Assembly administrators insisted that the bumper of his state car be fixed professionally. LaMalfa had a more expensive claim the next year, hitting another vehicle on an offramp, and costing nearly $16,000.

Smyth and Walters could not be reached for comment.

The list includes dozens of more costly mishaps, most notably the well-publicized 2007 erratic driving spree by former Sen. Carole Migden, which damaged two other vehicles and cost $361,000 to settle. Migden said she might have been impaired because of leukemia treatments. A year earlier, the San Francisco Democrat sideswiped a bus, costing the state more than $5,000.

Read the full story at sacbee.com

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