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Editorial: Auto Allowances

All pumped up

Even as gasoline prices continue to climb, some of Pennsylvania's state legislators are driving fuel-guzzling SUVs and leaving it to taxpayers to foot the bill at the pump.

Motorists across the country are reeling from sticker shock at soaring gasoline prices, but that has meant nothing to those state House and Senate members shamefully enjoying the perks of the job.

At least 73 members in the General Assembly drive state-owned SUVs, ostensibly while on legislative business. In many cases, they don't have to shell out a dime to fill their tanks.

All told, 123 Harrisburg lawmakers - nearly half of the 253 General Assembly members - drive state-owned vehicles, according to an Inquirer analysis.

Talk about feeling the public's pain!

With gas costing near $4 a gallon or more, ordinary citizens are driving less and rushing to trade in their eight-cylinder SUVs for more fuel-efficient vehicles. Lawmakers should do the same.

Those driving government cars say they are saving the state money by leasing vehicles for from $270 to $550 monthly. They say it would cost a lot more were they to be reimbursed for using their personal cars at the state allowance of 50.5 cents a mile.

Pennsylvania and California are the only states that generously offer subsidized cars to every member of their legislatures. Could it be that every other state has it right?

In New Jersey, only the top legislative leaders can get a state-paid car and only two actually drive them. Not even gas money is available to the rank-and-file.

But it isn't just legislators getting behind the wheel of state-supplied vehicles in Pennsylvania. A number of other state officials have taxpayer-paid access to high-end luxury models that get poor gas mileage. Gov. Rendell, for example, has a newly leased 2008 Cadillac DTS sedan that gets a measly 15 m.p.g. in city driving.

Appellate court judges can get reimbursed up to $600 monthly and may lease any car of their choice. Judges are currently riding Lexus, Infiniti and Mercedes models. Taxpayers also pay for their gas.

And all but three of Philadelphia's 17 City Council members drive city-owned vehicles at taxpayer expense. Only W. Wilson Goode Jr., Bill Green and James Kenney turned down the perk.

To its credit, the Rendell administration has shifted the state to a greener fleet. There are 460 fewer SUVs since Rendell took office in 2003. That's a start, but more should be done to reduce that number.

The collection of hybrids and alternative energy vehicles in the state fleet has increased from 95 to 950 in five years. That's encouraging.

If they want to stay in the driver's seat, lawmakers shouldn't expect taxpayers to be stuck paying for their use of gas-guzzling vehicles.