Thursday, January 17, 2008

WaPo: Senate Democrats Raise Own Allowance

Senators Raise Their Daily Allowance by $29
Delegates, Citing Budget Woes and Fears of Political Retaliation, Say They Won't Follow Suit

By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 17, 2008; B06

RICHMOND, Jan. 16 -- At a time of layoffs and salary freezes throughout state government, Democratic Senate leaders have pushed through a $29 increase in the daily allowance given to senators and some of their staff members during the legislative session.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled House said they are not going to follow the Senate's lead because of the budget situation and concerns that an increase could be used against them in a future campaign.

Under the rules approved last week by Senate leaders, senators who live outside Richmond will receive a $169 housing and food subsidy every day that the legislature is in session, including weekends, in addition to their $18,000 annual salary. The increase is effective for the current 60-day legislative session, which began last week.

Last year, when Republicans controlled the Senate, senators received a $140 per diem allowance. Legislative assistants who move to Richmond during the session are also eligible for the money, which is tax free if used for housing.

"All the hotel costs went up, and this was my decision," said Senate Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax). "A lot of these young [assistants] can barely make ends meet."

The Senate per diems, which cost taxpayers $773,000 a year, correspond to Internal Revenue Service guidelines for temporary housing costs in Richmond. Under Virginia law, delegates' and senators' daily allowances cannot exceed IRS guidelines, but they can be less.

GOP House leaders have decided to keep delegates' per diem at last year's rate, $135. That means senators will earn about $1,700 more than delegates this year. Delegates are paid $17,640 a year.

"It's going to be tough on our members, but our philosophy is, it is tough to ask groups to take cuts in their budgets and then turn around and do a per diem increase," said House Majority Leader H. Morgan Griffith (R-Salem). He said that it would cost $360,000 to raise the House allowance to $169.

Because of the slumping housing market, there is a $300 million shortfall in this year's budget. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has ordered an across-the-board 5 percent cut in many agency budgets, which has resulted in a few dozen layoffs. He is also not giving teachers and state employees a raise this year.

On Tuesday, state Finance Secretary Jody M. Wagner told lawmakers that revenue continues to lag behind projections, which has prompted Kaine to suggest that he might have to make additional cuts.

The House's decision to forgo the per diem increase is about more than budget woes.

During last fall's campaign, House Democrats targeted several incumbents by sending out mailers and running TV advertisements that criticized them for supporting a pay raise for legislators. "Danny Marshall opposed increasing the minimum wage while voting to increase his own salary," said one mailer aimed at Del. Daniel W. Marshall III (R-Danville).

Legislative salaries have not been raised in more than 15 years. The Democratic ads were referring to House GOP leaders' decision last year to raise the per diem by $5.

House Republicans were outraged at the ads, saying that Democrats violated a long-standing tradition of keeping per diems and pay raises out of political discussions.

The Democrats "took something that was not partisan and turned it into a political issue," Griffith said.

When they found out this week that the Senate was increasing its per diem, several House Democrats approached Speaker William J. Howell (R-Stafford) and other GOP leaders to ask whether they could also get an increase.

"We were like, 'Why? So you can beat us up again?' " Griffith asked.

House Minority Leader Ward L. Armstrong (D-Henry) distanced himself from the ads.

"Every one of us has our own take on what is fair," Armstrong said. "I don't know how much longer we have to talk about a campaign that was over in November. This is the 'o8 session."

Some Democratic delegates are clamoring for the extra money.

On Wednesday, Del. Kenneth R. Melvin (D-Portsmouth) told his House colleagues that he will circulate a resolution supporting a raise in the House, saying that a small amount of money could make a difference in people's lives.

"I don't think this issue should be partisan," he said. "Now is the time for the adults on both sides to get together and work on this issue."

Saslaw said he doesn't blame House Republicans for resisting calls to raise the allowance this year. Saslaw said that Senate Democrats, who picked up the four seats in the election needed to regain the majority, steered clear of using pay raises as an issue because they thought it was an unfair charge to make against GOP incumbents.

"They cut off their own noses," Saslaw said, referring to House Democrats.

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