Nappier's ticketing saga puts focus on state cars for top officials
After Nappier incident: Question of whether officials need state cars gains attention
Published 2:50 pm, Monday, October 3, 2011
Last month's ticketing of state Treasurer Denise Nappier by Hartford police has renewed the debate over why some of the state's highest elected officials need their own taxpayer-funded cars.
Ironically, according to Nappier's monthly mileage reports, she has put the least amount of miles on her car of four constitutional officers -- the others being the attorney general, comptroller and secretary of the state -- assigned 2011 Ford models for full-time use. Nappier and Comptroller Kevin Lembo drive Crown Victorias, Secretary of the State Denise Merrill a Taurus and Attorney General George Jepsen a Ford Escape.
Critics, particularly during tough fiscal times, have condemned the tradition as an unnecessary perk. And Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, who is chauffeured in a 2007 Lincoln Town Car by a state trooper, fueled that skepticism this summer, proposing the elimination of constitutional officers' wheels in a proposed "Plan B" budget alternative to union givebacks.
According to mileage reports filed with the Department of Administrative Services, Nappier put 5,842 miles on her Crown Victoria from January through August. During the same eight-month period Jepsen drove 24,275 miles, Lembo 16,743 miles and Merrill 11,461 miles.
All four have, according to DAS, daily commutes to their Hartford offices of varying lengths. Jepsen's is five miles, Nappier's eight, Merrill's 31 and Lembo's 70. This so-called "home to office right" is a taxable benefit, but DAS does not keep track of what the constitutional officers report to the Internal Revenue Service as personal use.
They also are not required to keep records of their destinations, reporting only total monthly miles driven to DAS.
Nappier was ticketed and her car confiscated for misuse of plates and operating an uninsured and unregistered vehicle after being stopped in September after dropping a friend at a housing complex in Hartford. Nappier's registration was for her previous state car, a 2007 Crown Victoria. According to DAS, constitutional officers' vehicles are traditionally replaced every four years, with the older vehicles reassigned within the current fleet of 3,645 cars.
Compounding matters, a data glitch left Nappier's license off a master Department of Motor Vehicles list.
The charges were subsequently dropped.
"Any personal use of the vehicle is limited, and I pay taxes on that use," Nappier wrote in an email to Hearst Connecticut Media Group, adding she is conscious of the expense to taxpayers and uses her car prudently.
In 2009, then-Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell, in an attempt to cut down on the number of employees assigned cars, issued an executive order mandating state workers had to drive an average of 700 miles per month for their jobs to justify use of a vehicle.
But constitutional officers over the years, in defending their state cars, have argued their circumstances are different because they not only conduct business statewide, but are obligated to attend ceremonial events as officials.
Jepsen, Lembo, Merrill and Nappier have all tried to eliminate predecessors' controversial practice of having staffers chauffeur them from Point A to Point B.
House Minority Leader Lawrence Cafero, R-Norwalk, said the officers should instead drive personal, not state-issued, vehicles and receive the same 51-cent mileage reimbursement as legislators and other state employees.
"I've always made an exception that certainly (for) the governor and lieutenant governor it is justifiable given all of their duties and appearances that they not only have an auto, but a driver," Cafero said. "But after that I'm at a loss."
Cafero believes having to drive personal cars and put in for mileage would cause the officers to make fewer trips.
Other agency heads do not even get mileage. Malloy in February issued a travel policy prohibiting mileage reimbursements to appointed officials, although many earn thousands more than the four constitutional officers.
Merrill suggested someone in state government calculate the most cost-effective solution and settle the matter.
"Just set a policy and tell me what you want me to do," Merrill said. "I kind of prefer my own (Prius), to be honest."
Some critics argue constitutional officers spend too much time politicking, noting ex-Democratic Attorney General-turned-U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal's reputation for never missing a political or community event.
"The more you drive, the more wear and tear. You're paying the mechanic," Cafero said. "Maybe that's a good thing."
Jepsen believes the cost differential between assigning constitutional officers cars or paying them mileage would be negligible. But Malloy's "Plan B" budget estimated saving $10,567 annually by cutting Merrill's car and $6,500 for Lembo's. The governor's alternative budget did not include numbers for Jepsen or Nappier, which the administration at the time said was an oversight.
Staff writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org