Columns » Max Brantley

Car service

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Arkansas Autogate. It's this year's $750 toilet seat.

I refer to the burgeoning controversy about the free cars provided state employees.

It began with a Democrat-Gazette report on the free cars given to statewide elected officials. Of them, only Lt. Gov. Bill Halter reported the perk as taxable income, as the IRS seems to require. Gov. Mike Beebe got a pass thanks to a Huckabee-era law that required the State Police to provide governors with security — AKA a chauffeur-driven SUV.

Perhaps the story would have died had Attorney General Dustin McDaniel not grandstanded. Before it was over, he'd given up his car, paid taxes and apologized for gigging Halter. Treasurer Martha Shoffner, at first indignant about being questioned, later capitulated, too.

Through it all, I had a broader interest in the thousands of state vehicles controlled by other state employees. In time, a couple of attorneys followed through. They filed a taxpayer's lawsuit for refunds from state employees who have state cars used for personal purposes.

The lawyers argue that state law prohibits any use of state property for personal benefit. Agree with that or not, it's hard to argue with their secondary claim, that where some state employees are "reimbursing" the state for personal car use, the amount is inadequate.

The IRS allows a taxpayer to deduct 42 cents a mile for business use of a personal vehicle. If you use a state car for personal use, however, you must reimburse the state only 15 cents a mile. The taxpayer subsidy is a heckuva deal for suburban commuters. You can find them in every branch of government, including the courts, from agency heads to legislative branch satraps and university officials.

I know a $100,000-a-year bureaucrat who lives in Conway and uses a state sedan for his daily commute. He's mostly office-bound. The law makes him pay only 15 cents a mile for miles driven in excess of 10 miles each way to and from his house. So his Conway commute costs him roughly $3 each way or well under $1,500 a year given his generous state vacation, holiday and leave time. The IRS figures the real cost at almost three times that amount.

Multiply that bargain by hundreds, maybe thousands, of commuters and you can see where there might be a payday in store for lawyers Gene Sayre and Chris Brockett.

Defenders of this auto perk claim it would cost the state much more to reimburse drivers for using their personal cars. I don't buy it — particularly not for the desk jockeys who qualify for a car on account of elevated title, not traveling duties. Suppose, for example, an employee drives 50 miles a day on business, which would be a lot for most car-equipped state employees. That would cost the state $105 a week in reimbursement at 42 cents a mile, or less than $5,000 a year counting holidays. It'd take seven years before the state would spend the equivalent of one SUV, five to six for a bureaucrat-worthy sedan.

Working people get it. They buy their own cars. They pay for their own commutes. Lots of them even blow off the small mileage driven in town for work. Many of these workers, unlike state employees in Little Rock, also pay for their own parking places. They have no state pension plan, no generous health benefits that extend into retirement.

Then they read about free (and tax-free) SUVs. And, worse, they hear petulant state officials bitch about press questions. It reinforces their worst suspicions about government. Bad year for that.

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