SAN FRANCISCO (KCBS/AP) – The free ride is over for California legislators.

With the state in a budget crisis, a government panel voted Thursday to end the decades-old practice of providing taxpayer-financed vehicles for Senate and Assembly members who want them, along with insurance, repairs and unlimited gasoline, all on the public tab.

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KCBS’ Rebecca Corral Reports:

The new deal: Get around in your own car. Starting in December, the state will give legislators a flat, $300-a-month payment to offset gas, insurance and other expenses, more than cutting in half the annual cost to taxpayers to keep lawmakers on the road.

KCBS and Chronicle Insider Phil Matier and former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown Comment:

The Citizens Compensation Commission, voting 5-0 with one abstention, sent a clear signal that it was time for legislators to surrender a luxury in a state where a car is often a necessity — and a status statement.

With California struggling to make ends meet “everything has to save money,” said commission member John Ronald Stites II.

The vote came at a time when the state is struggling to close a $26.6 billion deficit, workers have been furloughed to save money, billions in spending will be slashed, and legislators’ pay and perks are coming under closer scrutiny.

Commission member Charles Murray said state lawmakers receive compensation that averages $131,000 annually, not counting retirement. That includes $95,291 in base salary, $5,700 for health care, $7,453 for vehicle costs and nearly $23,000 in additional payments known as per diems, a package far larger than for their counterparts in states like New York, Illinois or Texas.

The new car payments would cut the average vehicle costs to $3,600 a year for legislators, saving more than $2 million over five years, according to commission estimates. The legislators will surrender the taxpayer-financed vehicles to the state.

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The panel left untouched, for now, salary levels and other benefits, such as health and dental care.

Shannon Murphy, a spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker John Perez, said there was concern with a one-size-fits-all approach in a state where districts vary from rural, desert expanses to congested inner-city neighborhoods.

“One district … is more than 32,000 square miles,” Murphy said. “Given the 26 percent cut legislators have already taken in salary and benefits, and the 15 percent additional cut the speaker made to the Assembly operating budget, today’s action seems punitive, and not in line with the commission’s duty to size legislative compensation to the job.”

The Associated Press reported in December that one recent purchase of vehicles by the Legislature included a $55,000 Cadillac sedan and a $52,000 Lexus hybrid, and the National Conference of State Legislatures said California is the only state in the nation that provided vehicles to its rank-and-file lawmakers for unlimited use. While the vehicles were intended for work travel, there was no way for the state to know if the cars were also being used for personal trips.

The money for the vehicles is a small fraction of the state’s overall budget mess, brought about largely by the national recession, double-digit unemployment and a housing crash. But lawmakers have taken steps to curb vehicle spending, and some don’t use state cars.

In the Senate, 12 of 40 members do not drive state-financed cars, and 19 of those who do have used vehicles, according to the office of Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

The AP reported in 2008 that of California’s 120 lawmakers, 21 charged more than $3,000 to their gasoline cards from January through July that year. Of those, 13 are Republicans, who preached about fiscal austerity during a summer-long budget impasse.

The panel chairman, Thomas Dalzell, sought to delay the vote and said legal advice given to the commission left questions about its authority over the vehicles. He abstained.

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