Pennsylvania’s House State Government Committee recently looked into a topic that concerns the activities of their own colleagues – the practice of legislators using vehicles leased by the state.
State Rep. Brad Roae, R-Meadville, has proposed a bill that would end that practice. House Bill 482 states in clear terms, “A state official may not be assigned a state-owned vehicle,” and “Commonwealth funds may not be used to lease a vehicle to or on behalf of a state official.” The bill defines a “state official” as a member of the General Assembly.
Roae’s bill was first filed in February 2017 and might have been allowed to expire without ever receiving consideration, but it received new relevance recently when a member of the House was charged with leaving the scene of a hit-and-run accident and driving on a suspended license while using a state vehicle. No one was injured in the January accident involving state Rep. Margo Davidson, D-Upper Darby, but during last week’s hearing on his bill, Roae worried that the state could have been subject to a significant legal liability if there had been an injury.
“That's a really scary situation,” Roae said. “Thank goodness, I think it was a fairly minor accident, but had that been a serious accident with the negligent entrustment issue … lawyers love those, because they can tell the jury, ‘hey, the boss knew this person didn't have a driver's license, they let him drive a car anyway. [It becomes], you know, how big of a check should they have to write to the person suing.”
According to staff members from the Department of General Services, which procures and assigns out the state vehicle fleet, there are currently 39 state vehicles assigned to the House of Representatives. Of those, eight are pool vehicles, meaning that various support staff members use them as part of their daily work responsibilities. The remaining 31 are being used by individual members, which leaves the other 172 House members using their personal vehicles and most likely claiming mileage expenses.
In talking with the DGS staffers, Roae wanted to get into how decisions are made generally across state government in terms of assigning a vehicle vs. paying mileage.
“If a legislator is driving ... 25,000 miles a year with a state-leased vehicle, that can probably be economical,” he said. “But if the legislator’s only driving 5,000 miles a year, they could have been paid $2,500 in mileage rather than $7,000 to lease a vehicle. So does DGS work with the different agencies to help them think, ‘oh hey this person should be using their own car’ or ‘this person here should be getting an assignment’?”
Ken Hess, the deputy secretary for procurement for DGS, said his department does have a process in place to do just that.
“Generally speaking, we want to see 1,000 miles per month of utilization or more [for assigned vehicles to be cost-effective], and ofttimes we’ll engage with agencies ... and we’ll move vehicles around from agency to agency to get the get the utilization up.”
One of Roae’s concerns was that even if the vehicle use by legislators looked cost-effective in the books, there was no real way to know if they were actually using their vehicles for state-related business when they claimed that they were, as opposed to private or political usage.
“It's my understanding, how the current system works, a legislator pays a proportional amount of the expenses,” he said. “So if a legislator said that 90 percent of the mileage is business use, 10 percent is personal, they only pay 10 percent or $62 dollars of that $628 monthly lease. Same thing with the gas and maintenance, tires, repairs, everything else – a very expensive program.”
The committee’s minority chairman, Rep. Matthew Bradford, D-Norristown, seemed to suggest that Roae was on the wrong track if he was trying to reduce costs, and that perhaps some legislators currently claiming mileage expenses of more than $1,000 a month would cost the state less if they were issued a vehicle.
“One can make the political fight, whether it's appropriate for legislators to have fleet vehicles,” Bradford said. “And I think unfortunately the politics may cloud the economics of it.”
Circling back to the Davidson case, Rep. Jerry Knowles, R-Tamaqua, worried that there was currently no mechanism to prevent such an incident from happening again.
“There needs to be something out there that will prevent [anyone] from continuing to drive a state vehicle if indeed their license is suspended ... whether it be a member of the judiciary, a member of the General Assembly or a member of the administration,” he said.
No vote was taken on HB482 and it remains under consideration in the State Government Committee.