NBC12 Investigates: Tracking the cash in Virginia's General Assembly

By Ryan Nobles - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Did you know, every single member of the Virginia General Assembly is given $15,000 a year for a district office? But is that really where the money goes?

The truth is, no one knows if the members of the House and Senate are spending that money the way it was intended, because the state does not require them to account for their expenses.

It is a total of just over $2 million. $15,000 deposited in the paycheck of every member of the General Assembly and then taxed as income. Once it leaves the state's piggy bank no one asks where it goes -- and critics say that is the problem.

"It can't be right, its not fair," said Paul Goldman a former aide to Governor Doug Wilder.

Very few delegates rent physical office space, designed expressly for their work as a legislator. Most list post office boxes on their state web sites. But according to Richmond Delegate Jennifer McClellan, that doesn't mean costs don't pile up.

"I think total in all expense that we spend, whether it is office supplies, or travel to go to speaking engagements that are related to being a delegate, all of those things would add up to more than $15,000," McClellan said.

But state law does not require the members to track their expenses and report back. That means the public really has no idea where that money goes. Arlington delegate Bob Brink believes that needs to change.

"[We should be able] to tell the people you represent and the commonwealth that this is what the money was given for and this is where it went," said Brink.

The delegate doubts his fellow members are using the money inappropriately, but his multiple attempts to reform the system have been quickly rebuffed.

"It's simply a resistance to change, more than anything else," said Brink.

That could be because some legislators need the money for other reasons.

"The truth is, in my judgement, legislators today are grossly underpaid," said Lt. Governor Bill Bolling, a former State Senator himself.

He admits the cash is way to help legislators supplement their income. Members of the House of Delegates are paid just over $17,000 a year -- their counterparts in the Senate receive $18,000. According to Bolling, the subject of public servant compensation is a touchy subject.

"Is that the best way of dealing with it? Probably not, but under the political circumstance, that over time, is the way that the legislature has chosen to do it," he said.

Paul Goldman, once sued the state over the district office allowance. He believes the system leaves the legislature open to criticism, no matter how much it is.

"It's not a question of the absolute amount of money, it's the fact that we know they aren't using this for office expenses," he said.

Both Bolling and McClellan said they agree with Bob Brink that the money could be tracked a bit more closely, but McClellan warned that could bring with it some unintended consequences.

"That would though, add a level of bureaucracy that we don't currently have, it could end up costing more," McClellan said.

An argument Brink doesn't buy.

"I don't think there would be any additional layer needed there," he said.

In a system, Goldman doesn't think will ever change.

"Any time a public official does a wink- wink and forces the public to wink-wink with them, you are eventually setting yourself up for something that when you need the public's support and they are going to say.. 'Ah..No no no'."

Meanwhile Governor McDonnell's office also weighed in on the district office allowance, and it appears they too believe reform is necessary.

Spokesman Tucker Martin said: "The Governor is a strong supporter of greater transparency in state government. Taxpayers deserve to know how their money is being spent. The district allowance system is run by the legislative branch, and the governor encourages all efforts to ensure the system is operated in a transparent, appropriate and fiscally responsible manner."

And one other interesting note. The last time the legislature dealt with their salaries they actually cut them. The last time they dealt with the office allowance- they bumped it up. And you can read more about the district office allowance debate and give your opinion, on our political blog: DecisionVirginia.com

Copyright 2010 WWBT NBC12. All rights reserved.