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Virginia Delegates Collect Daily Payments During Virtual Session

Woman seated
Virginia Speaker of the Houser Eileen Filler-Corn seated at the head of the House of Delegates chamber. (Photo: Craig Carper/VPM News)

Members of Virginia’s House of Delegates may be meeting remotely, but most will still collect $211 daily payments during their virtual 2021 session to supplement their salaries. 

The so-called "session payment" rate is pegged to federal estimates of Richmond meal and hotel prices. Unlike formal per diems normally given to lawmakers who travel to Richmond during session, the 2021 payments are subject to taxes.

The payments are separate from part-time delegates’ annual salary ($17,640), office stipend ($15,000 for most delegates) and compensation for non-session meetings ($300 for a half-day, $400 for a full day). Each lawmaker's legislative assistant will also collect the $211. Del. Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Del. Nick Freitas (R-Culpeper) have declined the payments, according to Elizabeth Mancano, the House's chief communications officer.

The payouts became a point of contention during last year’s special session, when House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenendoah) wrote a letter to House Clerk Suzette Denslow saying his caucus had agreed to forgo the money as long as the body met remotely. Six House Republicans accepted the payments anyway, according to records kept by Denslow’s office. Garren Shipley, a spokesman for Gilbert, did not respond to a request for comment.

Some lawmakers argue the payments are necessary in a legislature whose schedule consumed much of last year. David Bovenizer, an attorney who works for Del. Lee Ware (R-Powhatan), one of the six Republicans who accepted the special session payment, pointed to lawmakers’ comparatively low salaries that have not budged since 1988.

“Delegate Ware believes simply that the laborer is worthy of his hire,” Bovenizer wrote in an email, citing a passage of the Bible. 

The other Republicans to accept the special session payments were Del. Terry Austin (R-Botetourt), Del. Robert Bloxom (R-Accomack), Del. James Edmunds (R-Halifax), Del. Barry Knight (R-Virginia Beach), and Del. Dave LaRock (R-Loudoun).

Payments to lawmakers have kept pace with the General Assembly’s lengthening legislative calendar. The House and Senate clerks paid out over $2.86 million in session and meeting payments to lawmakers last year, according to data VPM obtained in a public records request. That total included an 83-day special session (though lawmakers were only paid for days they were meeting) and surpassed the $2.45 million they paid in 2018, when a debate over Medicaid expansion spilled into late spring.  

The various sources of lawmaker pay aren’t readily accessible to the public. Untangling the money and how it can be spent requires a journey through Virginia’s legal code, budget and documentation from the Internal Revenue Service. Nancy Morgan, a coordinator with the Virginia chapter of the campaign finance reform group American Promise, argued the obscurity is part of a broader pattern.

“This fits into the whole lack of transparency and what we feel is needed in terms of accountability of our legislators to their voters,” Morgan said. 

Just five states ranked lower than Virginia in the Coalition for Integrity’s so-called S.W.A.M.P. Index released last year, which tracked the strength of states’ ethics rules. Lawmakers in Virginia are not required to disclose how they spend the office stipend, which is taxable. There are no laws preventing them from using campaign dollars for personal expenses, though Del. Marcus Simon (D-Fairfax) has filed a bill this year to change that. 

Kunal Atit, a spokesman for Democratic Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, said the session payments during remote sessions were an extension of past policies under Republican majorities. Lawmakers from both parties who live within 50 miles of Richmond have collected session payments for years.

“The payments to all members will be subject to taxes, as has long been the case for members residing within 50 miles of the Capitol to reflect the virtual nature of this session," Atit said in an email.

Virginia’s Senate met in person during last year’s special session. When the body met again on Wednesday, they temporarily modified rules to allow some members to dial in remotely. Those members will get a session payment -- but only if they are in the Richmond area, GOP Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment said in a floor speech.

“It’s unlike the House where they’re sitting by the pool, under their umbrella, or in their living room, at home, collecting per diem,” Norment said.

Editor's note: A prior version of this story referred to "per diems." We've updated it to avoid implying that the payments are not taxed. This story has been updated to include the fact that Del. Cox and Del. Freitas declined the session payment.