Lawmakers’ Driving Claims Cost California Taxpayers

June 11, 2007

Lawmakers using state-issued vehicles filed auto insurance claims at a far higher rate than the general public, costing California taxpayers nearly $90,000 the past two years, according to records obtained by The Associated Press.

The lawmakers, some of whom are no longer in office, filed 54 claims during the period, many for accidents and damage they caused.

Several were the victims of other drivers, roadway debris or had their vehicles vandalized.

But often the legislators themselves were clearly at fault. They rear-ended or backed into other motorists, improperly turned into the path of other cars and struck curbs, poles and other objects, according to the records, which were provided by the state Department of General Services in response to an AP request.

Those records show that 10 lawmakers filed more than one claim during the two-year period, including state Sen. Carole Migden.

The San Francisco Democrat put the state’s policy of providing vehicles for legislators under the microscope when she triggered a chain-reaction accident May 18 while driving her state-owned 2007 Toyota Highlander Hybrid. Migden had driven erratically for more than 30 miles along Interstate 80 before rear-ending another vehicle carrying a woman and her 3-year-old daughter.

Records also show previous claims by Migden. She sideswiped a bus on June 8, 2006, causing $5,028 worth of damage to the state vehicle. In 2005, she was involved in two minor fender-benders while parking, according to reports she filed with the Senate Rules Committee.

Sacramento County Superior Court records show Migden, then an Assembly member, also ran a stop sign near the state Capitol in 1996, injuring the other driver.

“Particularly with lawmakers like Senator Migden, who has had several claims, I wonder if taxpayers should be picking up the cost. Lawmakers with poor driving records should be picking up the cost themselves,” said Carmen Balber, a consumer advocate for the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights, a consumer advocacy group in Santa Monica. “Taxpayers certainly shouldn’t be paying for the poor driving habits of lawmakers.”

In the May accident, the California Highway Patrol has recommended that Migden be charged with reckless driving for striking a guard rail along Interstate 80 in Vallejo and rear-ending the other car after exiting the freeway onto Highway 12 in Fairfield. The driver and her daughter suffered minor injuries when their car was sandwiched between Migden’s SUV and another vehicle.

It is too soon for Migden’s claim to reflect the amount the state will pay for the damage to the three vehicles and for any injuries to the woman or her daughter.

In an earlier interview with the AP, Migden said taxpayers should pay any claims from her accident because she was on state business at the time. The senator, her spokeswoman and her chief of staff did not respond to a request for further comment Friday.

According to the Department of General Services records, 25 of the 80 Assembly members and 16 of the 40 senators filed damage claims between May 2005 and May of this year.

Lawmakers filed claims at an annual rate of 22.5 per 100 vehicles. That compares to a rate of about 14.8 for all physical damage claims by California drivers in general, said Diana Lee, director of research for the Association of California Insurance Companies.

“That’s awfully high,” said the association’s president, Sam Sorich, before learning that state lawmakers were the ones filing the high rate of claims. “I’m sure they’re wonderful drivers. We’re just the source of objective data.”

The total number of claims could be even higher. Records obtained through a Legislative Opens Record Act request from the Senate Rules Committee, which receives senators’ initial reports, show claims that were not included by the Department of General Services. The discrepancy could not be immediately reconciled.

By Friday, the Assembly Rules Committee had not responded to a similar open records act request by the AP. Furthermore, the Senate records excluded any claims that include pending lawsuits.

The Department of General Services data show the state paid $66,238 to repair damage to legislators’ vehicles and another $23,420 to other drivers for property damage or personal injury during the last two years.

The state is self-insured, so the money ultimately comes from taxpayers through the state’s Office of Risk and Insurance Management.

The only bodily injury payment was $4,000 paid by the state after Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, rear-ended another vehicle on Aug. 19, 2005, according to the state records. That accident also cost the state $2,113 for property damage.

The amount paid for damage or injury claims is on top of the $1.7 million the state budgets each year for lawmakers’ vehicles, gasoline and maintenance costs. Members of the Assembly and Senate already are the highest paid state lawmakers in the country, making $113,097 a year in salary.

Aside from Migden, the records show Assemblyman Rick Keene filed the most claims — four for $6,127.

Two were for broken windshields from debris kicked up by other vehicles. But Keene, R-Chico, also rear-ended another vehicle last Feb. 13 and backed into a vehicle on Oct. 21, 2005, according to the state records.

Keene said he could not recall the 2005 accident, but the February crash remains fresh in his mind. He said couldn’t slow in time to avoid rear-ending a stopped vehicle in the fast lane of Highway 99 as he was driving to the Capitol from his home in Chico.

“It was not the best day I had, that’s for sure,” Keene said in a telephone interview, defending his overall driving record as good.

“I think I’ve had only a couple of accidents in my 35 years of driving,” he said.

Keene said he commutes 85 miles one way to Sacramento most days when the Legislature is in session, putting more than 30,000 miles a year on his state-owned Toyota Highlander Hybrid.

“Being on the road that much, things are bound to happen,” he said.

Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said it is proper for the state to pay for lawmakers’ vehicles and associated costs.

The alternative, he said, would be for the state to reimburse legislators for their mileage or in some other fashion while they are traveling to and from the Capitol or on state business.

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