You’re so money: Will ethics reform reshape Virginia’s legislature?

You’re so money: Will ethics reform reshape Virginia’s legislature?

We’d like to kick off this edition of the Odd Dominion with a surprising number: $17,640. That’s the annual base pay for a member of Virginia’s House of Delegates (senators get an equally anemic $18,000 per year). Yes, Virginia’s lawmakers also get a healthy per diem of $180 for every day that the legislature is in session, travel expenses and a direct payment of $15,000 to fund a district office (not to mention health insurance and a pension), but an exhaustive accounting published last November by the Daily Press showed that the annual salary range for a member of the General Assembly ran from a low of $44,520 to a high of $66,421 (earned by Speaker of the House Bill Howell). Not a pittance, certainly, but far from a royal fortune.

It should be noted that Virginia’s legislators are officially part-timers, and are paid accordingly. But it’s equally true that the quaint notion of a ragtag group of citizen legislators taking time off from their full-time jobs to help govern (a big part of the fabled “Virginia way”) is mostly hogwash. Many Assembly members treat lawmaking and constituent services as their main occupation, and earn extra money as lobbyists or political consultants when the legislature is out of session.

And then, of course, there’s the matter of actually running for office, which requires an ever-escalating amount of campaign cash. It’s this unavoidable fundraising burden that is often cited when sitting members decline to seek reelection.

The latest legislator to throw in the towel is Republican Delegate David Ramadan, who recently announced that he would not run for a third term in the 87th District. Discussing his decision with The Virginian-Pilot’s Shawn Day, Ramadan said that an effective reelection campaign would require at least a half-million dollars, and lamented “it’s just absolutely insane how much money has to be spent on these races.” In the same article, fellow delegate Todd Gilbert claimed that Ramadan “literally sacrificed a fortune” by neglecting his business during his time in the Assembly.

While we certainly don’t want to denigrate Delegate Ramadan’s service to the Commonwealth, we feel compelled to point out that his business, RAMA International, is a consulting firm that specializes in “Franchising, Government Relations, International Relations, International Trade and other related services.” In other words, it’s the exact sort of business that is enhanced by Ramadan’s status as a legislator, and one could easily argue that without the connections and prestige that come with his elected office, RAMA International would be far less attractive to potential clients.

In all likelihood, after two tight elections (a 51-vote victory in 2011, expanded to 187 votes in 2013), Ramadan did the cost-benefit analysis and decided that it wasn’t worth his time and money to mount a potentially losing campaign. And so back to the private sector he goes, with his Rolodex, working relationships and business prospects all greatly enhanced.

Not to be overly cynical, but we highly suspect that the growing push for ethics reform in Richmond will lead to a much higher number of these early retirements. After all, without the ability to accept unlimited gifts from business leaders and lobbyists, or blatantly exchange state funding for a private sector job (as former delegate and current federal inmate Phil Hamilton tried to do while seeking a position at Old Dominion University), how’s a poor pol to survive? A grateful constituency is all well and good, but a legislator’s got to eat, you know. And golf. And fly on a Gulfstream jet to an all-expenses-paid “fact-finding” mission to Las Vegas. It’s the Virginia way!

Odd Dominion is an unabashedly liberal, twice-monthly op-ed column covering Virginia politics.

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