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Pa. lawmakers fill up at your expense

HARRISBURG - When Philadelphia State Rep. Robert Donatucci pulls up to the pump, it costs as much as $102 to fill his state-owned 2004 Dodge Durango, an eight-cylinder SUV.

HARRISBURG - When Philadelphia State Rep. Robert Donatucci pulls up to the pump, it costs as much as $102 to fill his state-owned 2004 Dodge Durango, an eight-cylinder SUV.

He and 72 others in Pennsylvania's 253-member General Assembly continue to drive SUVs at taxpayer expense despite efforts by Harrisburg to bring more fuel-efficient vehicles to the state fleet, an Inquirer analysis shows.

In many cases, they aren't paying $4 a gallon to top off their tanks on legislative business.

You are.

State House and Senate members, who enjoy one of the most generous public leasing programs in the nation, have grown accustomed to critiques of what they drive. Now, with the price of gas reaching new highs seemingly every week, the debate has also focused on miles per gallon and who pays.

"In the real world, workers pay the price to commute," said Eric Epstein, founder of, a Harrisburg government-watchdog group. "You cannot feel the consumers' pain by driving a gas guzzler to the gas station and then fill your tank up with a taxpayer credit card."

It's not just legislators.

The list of cars leased by state appellate judges at the government's expense is full of high-end, poor-gas-mileage luxury models - Lexus, Infiniti, Mercedes. And Gov. Rendell's newly leased 2008 Cadillac DTS sedan gets a paltry 15 m.p.g. in city driving.

Nonetheless, the administration has made progress in recent years toward a smaller and greener fleet.

Since Rendell took office in 2003, the number of passenger vehicles has been trimmed 3 percent, to 16,225. A shift away from SUVs accounts for most of the decrease. The fleet has 1,125 SUVs, 460 fewer than when Rendell was sworn in.

Most state-owned SUVs are assigned to agencies, such as state parks, that need that type of vehicle, said James Creedon, secretary of the Department of General Services, which oversees the fleet.

Hybrids and alternative-energy vehicles have increased dramatically in five years - from 95 to 950.

Given the high demand for hybrids, Creedon said, the state can't get its hands on enough of them. And that has left some members of the General Assembly waiting to swap out their older, less-efficient vehicles.

Rep. Daylin Leach knew he looked like a hypocrite.

The eco-friendly Montgomery County Democrat would roll up to meetings with environmental groups in his state-leased Jeep Grand Cherokee and get nasty looks. After all, he was the lawmaker who had introduced a bill to require 25 percent of the state fleet be hybrids by 2010.

"They just thought I was a jerk," he said.

That changed last month when the state issued five new Mercury Mariner hybrids to the House. One went to Leach.

"It was very important to me that if I am going to talk the talk on environment issues I had to walk the walk as well," he said.

In the last 15 years, there has been a sizable shift in how members of the General Assembly get around, according to past and current surveys by The Inquirer.

In 1993, 196 lawmakers - about three in four - drove state-subsidized cars. A decade later, that had dropped to 165. Now it's 123, fewer than half the General Assembly.

The shift is due largely to negative media attention on state cars, criticism from voters, and a fear of reprisals at the polls. For a lawmaker, it's easier to explain to constituents - and safer politically - if you drive your own vehicle.

Another factor: Recent internal rules make it less attractive to have a state auto.

In 2006, after the legislative pay-raise debacle, the Senate stripped members of their ability to lease vehicles from private dealerships at public expense. It had paid up to $600 a month for the perk. The House, which had paid up to $650 monthly for private leases, followed suit in 2007.

Since then, lawmakers wanting a state-subsidized vehicle have had to pick from a government fleet. Gone were leather seats and other pricey options found in private leases. Fleet vehicles are typically base models with few frills and no luxury brands.

As a result of the leasing changes, some lawmakers have traded down.

Sen. Vincent J. Fumo, for example, had for years leased a Cadillac, and maxed out his $600 monthly allowance. In this, his final term, the Philadelphia Democrat is driving a Chrysler 300, costing half that.

Even now, Pennsylvania is one of only two states, along with California, that offer subsidized cars to every member of the legislature.

In New Jersey, just the top legislative leaders have access to state-paid cars, and only two drive them. Rank-and-file members don't even get gas money.

Rep. Katharine Watson (R., Bucks) is among seven legislators who were allowed under the new rules to carry over existing private leases. But she doesn't bill the state for any gas for her 2007 Ford Escape SUV, for which taxpayers spend $287 monthly.

"I look at it as the cost of doing the job," she said.

Those who tap Pennsylvania's fleet program insist they are saving taxpayers. The monthly price of their vehicles, ranging from $270 to $550, includes insurance and maintenance.

In most cases, it is cheaper to use a vehicle from the fleet - even including gas - than to bill for mileage on a personal vehicle, they contend. The government reimbursement rate is 50.5 cents a mile.

Many legislators who drive their own vehicles bill the state for every business-related mile, while others are more discerning.

Sen. John Eichelberger (R., Blair), who won his seat two years ago on a reform agenda, drives his own Ford F-150 truck and pays out of his own pocket for most of his fuel. He bills the state only when he travels outside of his sprawling central Pennsylvania district.

The pickup is easy to spot in the parking lot in front of the Capitol. It's the one with the license plate: RE4MER.

"In this day and age when we are looking at very tight budgets, we should be an example how the state should operate," Eichelberger said of state-subsidized vehicles. "Certainly, people in the legislature can afford to have their own vehicles. It's a luxury that is unnecessary."

State judges, however, are the ones driving in real style.

Unlike the legislature, the appellate court system continues to allow judges to drive the cars of their choice, with taxpayers reimbursing them up to $600 monthly.

Twenty-seven of the 39 judges and senior judges on the Supreme, Superior and Commonwealth Courts have personal leases, according to state records.

Chief Justice Ronald D. Castille drives a 2007 Cadillac, which costs taxpayers $542 a month. Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard McGinley has a 2007 Lexus, $600 monthly, and Superior Court Senior Judge Zoran Popovich's 2003 Mercedes runs the public $577.

All their business-related fuel is picked up as well.

Like some of his colleagues, Donatucci insists he needs the room and security of an SUV, given that he drives to the Capitol from far away, often in poor weather.

Even so, he is rethinking his Durango, with its 27-gallon gas tank. He's considering giving it up for a smaller SUV, perhaps a hybrid.

But Donatucci has limitations. He's a big man, he said: 6-foot, 250 pounds.

"I'm not a small guy who can fit in a small vehicle," he said.

Big-Car Crowd

Philadelphia-area legislators who drive state-subsidized non-hybrid SUVs.

Dodge Durangos

Rep. Robert Donatucci (D., Phila.)

Rep. Thaddeus Kirkland (D., Delaware)

Rep. Mike McGeehan (D., Phila.)

Rep. John Myers (D., Phila.)

Rep. Frank Oliver (D., Phila.)

Rep. Ron Waters (D., Phila.)

Jeep Cherokees

Sen. Charles McIlhinney (R., Bucks)

Rep. Gene DiGirolamo (R., Bucks)

Rep. Mike Gerber (D., Mongtomery)

Rep. George Kenney (R., Phila.)

Rep. Dennis O'Brien (R., Phila.)

Rep. Cherelle Parker (D., Phila.)

Rep. Josh Shapiro (D., Montgomery)

Chevy Trailblazers

Rep. Dwight Evans (D., Phila.)

Rep. Harold James (D., Phila.)

Rep. Bill Keller (D., Phila.)

Rep. John Perzel (R., Phila.)

Ford Explorers

Rep. Bob Mensch (R., Montgomery)

Rep. Jay Moyer (R., Montgomery)

Rep. Mike Vereb (R., Montgomery)

Chevy Uplander

Rep. Mark Cohen (D., Phila.)

Ford Escape

Rep. Katharine Watson (R., Bucks)

GMC Envoy

Sen. Anthony Williams (D., Phila.)