SACRAMENTO -- Requiring legislators to drive their personal cars for legislative business saved taxpayers nearly $240,000 in the past year, according to records reviewed by The Sacramento Bee.

Costs have been cut by more than one-third since the state stopped leasing cars for lawmakers and started reimbursing them for miles driven, beginning in December 2011.

Savings were achieved largely because legislators cut their miles traveled roughly in half, however, so costs would jump again if they altered those driving habits next year.

Less driving has been apparent in both houses, though total savings are preliminary because legislators still can seek reimbursement for the session that ended last month.

"You just tend to be more careful with your own car," said Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College, when asked why per-mile reimbursement might slash miles driven.

Others say the issue is more complicated.

Assembly administrator Jon Waldie said some legislators may have paid some or all of their gas costs to avoid reimbursement becoming fodder for campaign hit pieces. Others may have tried to save the state money by cutting the number of long-distance meetings with constituents.

"I would hope that there's nothing in this system that would cause members to be hesitant to drive to an event to see a constituent because it might be used against them," Waldie said.


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The findings are at odds with a joint legislative study two years ago that said some extraordinarily long Capitol commutes and massive districts would make it unlikely that per-mile reimbursement would cut costs significantly -- and could raise them.

Differences in district sizes did contribute to wide variations in reimbursement, from a high of $28,896 for Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, to a low of $147 for Sen. Alan Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, and Assemblyman Sandre Swanson, D-Alameda.

Nielsen's district covered all or portions of nine Northern California counties and totaled 21,151 square miles. By contrast, Lowenthal's Los Angeles County district totaled 224 square miles and Swanson's Alameda County district, 54 square miles.

Fourteen of the Assembly's 80 members sought no reimbursement for driving this year, as did nine of the 40 senators.

Assemblyman Paul Cook, R-Yucca Valley, previously participated in the lease-car program -- driving a 2007 Nissan Altima Hybrid -- but did not seek reimbursement for using his personal car this year.

Spokesman John Sobel said Cook, who ran successfully for a congressional seat this year, took the issue of cutting his driving expenses to heart once the lease program was targeted as a concern.

"The way we read it, I think, was that the people would be happier with legislators paying their own way on cars," Sobel said. "So he just made it simple and paid for it himself."

Greg Schmidt, Senate secretary, said he suspects the Senate's reduction in miles driven is due partly to more scrupulous reporting. If a member takes a business trip from Burbank to Los Angeles, but detours to visit a relative nearby, the lawmaker now must specify business miles traveled. The old program did not require such documentation.

"If it's cheaper, that's good," Schmidt said of per-mile reimbursement.

Differences in driving habits also create disparities, for example: Sen. Rod Wright, D-Inglewood, and Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, had districts of roughly the same size -- 108 square miles and 75 square miles, respectively. Wright was reimbursed $4,703 for nearly 9,000 miles driven, while Dickinson received $1,657 for about 3,100 miles. Wright did not return calls seeking comment.

State Sen. Noreen Evans, D-Santa Rosa, argued in 2011 against eliminating the lease-car program because of the impact on lawmakers from big districts -- she drives 2,000 miles a month, she said then. This year's Senate figures show Evans was reimbursed $4,038 for driving far less than that, averaging 635 miles per month. She said she has not seen the data but that the figure sounds low.

Evans said she remains opposed to the new program because of costs to reimburse legislators who commute long distances to the Capitol or have large districts, such as hers, which totaled 10,758 square miles.