Utah's top elected officials are rolling in some pretty decent taxpayer funded vehicles on the streets of the Beehive State.
According to state law, the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, State Treasurer and State Auditor are to receive a vehicle for official and personal use once they take office. It is considered part of the compensation for serving the people of Utah.
"We'll usually just start that [process] officially once they are inaugurated," explained Sam Lee, Division Director for the Division of Fleet Services for the state of Utah, about when Utah's elected officials receive their vehicle. "We have a menu option and if they want something in particular they can adjust that."
According to state records, obtained by the Daily Herald through a government records request, Utah's constitutional officers have chosen fairly plain vehicles for their rides. Gov. Gary Herbert typically rides in a Utah Highway Patrol vehicle driven by a UHP officer but he has been issued a 2008 Chevy Tahoe hybrid that cost taxpayers $47,299. Since Herbert is usually hauled around by the UHP, the Tahoe is driven by the first lady. During the last 15 months the Herberts have averaged around 888 miles per month in the taxpayer-funded Tahoe.
Former Lt. Gov. Greg Bell, who officially resigned last Wednesday, actually had the priciest vehicle of the group. Bell had a 2011 Chevy Tahoe hybrid that cost $55,663 when it was purchased. As of Oct. 15, Bell's vehicle had gone 68,151 miles.
Attorney General John Swallow has the newest car in the group. In September, Swallow was able to pick up his new 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee. The new Jeep cost taxpayers $39,673, but that does not compare to a car requested by a former Utah Attorney General. Phil Hansen, who served as Attorney General in the '60s, requested to have a Jaguar for his personal vehicle. Hansen served for only one term and according to Utah Capitol Hill history buffs, the Jag actually sold for a profit after Hansen left office.
State Treasurer Richard Ellis also has a new car this year. In May, Ellis replaced his 2008 Toyota Avalon with a new 2013 Avalon. Both of the cars cost a little more than $31,000 to the taxpayers.
State Auditor John Dougall actually turned down having a state-funded vehicle for personal use. Dougall's predecessor, Austin Johnson, did drive a 2009 Ford Explorer that cost $26,995, but Dougall chose to use his own car and have the state reimburse him when he uses the car for official use.
Dougall actually is looking to change the vehicle policy for the state's five constitutional officers as he is suggesting that the Legislature look at changing the policy in place right now. Earlier this year Dougall sent a letter to leaders in the Legislature advising them that the policy could be tightened to prevent situations where the taxpayer may be shelling out large amounts of cash for elected officials' personal use of the vehicles.
In the letter, Dougall points out that the current program provides an open-ended benefit of taxpayer funded vehicles as there are no statutory limitations on the type of vehicle that can be requested, what the vehicle can be used for and how many miles the elected officials can put on the taxpayer funded car.
"My concern is the wise use of taxpayer funds in a manner that is readily understood by the taxpayer and caps taxpayer liability. The current system fails on all counts," wrote Dougall in the letter. Lawmakers addressed Dougall's letter this past week in a meeting of the Government Operations interim committee. The committee chose not to take any action on the matter at that time as it was explained to them by Roger Tew, chair of Utah's Elected Official and Judicial Compensation Commission, that his commission has reviewed the policy and has no suggestions for changes to the current practice.
Tew noted that there has not been a history of abuse to the current policy but did say his commission could review the issue again. He cautioned lawmakers on the committee to not create a problem where there isn't one.
Dougall told the Herald he still would like to see the issue addressed by the Legislature. He especially would like to see that taxpayers are refunded when the vehicles are used in conjunction with campaign activity.
Without a scandal though to give the issue some steam it appears that for now Utah taxpayers will have to trust the state's top officials to use the honor system in knowing that the vehicles are being used in a responsible way.