An elected Republican official tells me he/she was not consulted nor were many other Republicans in his/her circle before the Republican Party sued yesterday over the state cars provided constitutional officers and the House speaker. The thinking from this quarter was that the suit was ill-advised. It’s nakedly political. An existing lawsuit already presents a non-partisan attack on the broader question of use of state cars for personal purposes. Republican Party Chair Doyle Webb is not exactly a poster child for ethical behavior. Even the Democrat-Gazette editorial page, though no defender of freebies, has indicated the lawsuit is screwy.
I was kind of surprised to hear the party’s insider’s view. Maybe it’s a lonely point of view. Conventional wisdom certainly seems to be that you can’t beat up politicians enough over perks, big or small.
As I’ve said before, I think you can make a case that the cars, when used personally (and it’s just about impossible to avoid when you have a state vehicle) might be an unconstitutional pay enhancement. I do think Webb is wrong to dismiss the argument that, if that’s so, retirement and health benefits are also illegal. Webb says these are non-taxable fringe benefits and thus not an income supplement. (And lots of Republican officeholders benefit from them and he wouldn’t want to sue THEM.) Retirement contributions certainly are designed to become income.
Webb figured, correctly, that he’d reap a bonanza of news coverage by suing and there’s no media like free media. Since this has been the Democrat-Gazette’s story, it is sure to blow it out every time the subject is raised. This morning, it led the newspaper with the GOP’s follow-through on its pre-announced intention to sue. The newspaper editor’s position on lawsuits has generally been that anybody can file a lawsuit. The mere filing of one is, thus, not such a big deal.
Much as I think state cars are justified for only a small number of employees who must use them constantly in their work, I think the broader question of the overall state fleet (particularly that bodacious Game and Fish motor pool — a state car in every garage) is the much more important point than Charlie Daniels’ Buick.