RICHMOND -- Northern Virginia lawmakers, who are often criticized for not having much clout in the Virginia General Assembly, are the clear leaders in exercising muscle in one area -- they are the most frequent travelers and among the biggest spenders in the legislature.

Of the seven most frequent travelers in the House of Delegates, five were from Northern Virginia, topped by Del. Mary A. Marshall (D-Arlington), who led all 140 lawmakers in the number of trips taken in fiscal 1990 -- 32 -- at a cost to the taxpayers of $5,002. In the first half of fiscal 1991 (July-December 1990), Marshall made another 23 trips at a cost of $4,082. In that 18-month period, Marshall visited Florida, Alabama and Oklahoma.

Others piling up bonus miles were Del. Gladys B. Keating (D-Franconia), third in overall travel spending at $2,998 for 16 trips; Del. Leslie L. Byrne (D-Fairfax), fourth at $2,503 for 17 trips; Del. James F. Almand (D-Arlington), fifth at $2,443 for 16 trips; and Del. Alan E. Mayer (D-Fairfax), seventh at $2,267 for 18 trips.

Of Northern Virginia's 29 legislators, Sen. Emilie F. Miller (D-Fairfax) spent the most money on travel, $6,245 for 22 trips, which ranked her second in travel costs among all 40 members of the Senate.

Miller was the only one of the eight senators from Northern Virginia who made the top 10. The travel spending champ was Sen. Dudley J. "Buzz" Emick Jr. (D-Botetourt), who spent $7,572 on 28 trips.

The information, which covered fiscal 1990 and which ran from July 1, 1989 to June 30, 1990, was compiled by state Comptroller Edward J. Mazur and made public as a result of a request made under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Legislators are quick to point out that they can't just hop on a jet and send the bill to the state. All out-of-state travel must be approved in advance, in the House by Speaker A.L. Philpott (D-Henry) and in the Senate by the Privileges and Elections Committee. The vast majority of the travel was to and from Richmond, usually at a reimbursement rate of 24 cents a mile.

Much of the out-of-state travel was to conferences or meetings sponsored by organizations such as the National Conference of State Legislators (NCSL) or the Southern Legislative Conference (SLC), while most in-state travel was to the state Capitol.

"I don't consider it a perk to go to Richmond, or Big Stone Gap," said Mayer, who said that as a retiree, he devotes full time to his legislative duties.

Mayer said his most "exotic" trip was to Tampa for a conference on human resources sponsored by the SLC. "I never left the hotel," he said.

Marshall laughed that she deserves "a prize" for "the most trips at the least cost," often staying with friends in the host city.

Over the years Marshall, a 12-term delegate, said she has chaired health committees for both the NCSL and SLC. She defended her travels, saying, "It's where I get a lot of good ideas."

Her longest trip was some years ago, when she went to Tasmania for a two-day conference with Australian legislators. The state paid for her lodging, but the house speaker balked at the air fare, which she got from a non-state source.

Byrne, who serves on the finance committees of both the NCSL and SLC, said that attending meetings in Boise, Idaho, and Asheville, N.C., "helped put Virginia's {budget} experience in context. It's invaluable."

Byrne added, "I haven't played golf and I don't ski."

Philpott said he doesn't automatically grant travel requests. Delegates must stay within a budget controlled by the Committee on Interstate Cooperation.

The speaker, who represents a rural area in Southside, said Northern Virginia lawmakers find it convenient to attend conferences in Washington, and are "more used to using committee systems" that are at the heart of the national and regional legislative organizations.

Philpott also noted that "the most active and interested" lawmakers are "the ladies. They have more time to devote to it."

For his part, "I don't like the annual meetings," Philpott said. More work gets done at special conferences on specific topics, he said.

"I don't like the national association," Philpott said. "Those people's interests are so diverse, and it's dominated by the Northeast and Far West." He prefers the SLC, where Virginia "is in competition" with its neighbors for tourism and economic development.

In addition to their $18,000 annual salary, legislators receive annual office expenses, $5,500 for senators and $3,000 for delegates, which do not have to be accounted for; daily expenses when they are working on state business whether or not the General Assembly is in session, which is about 60 days in even-numbered years and 45 in odd-numbered years; $100 a day for attending meetings when the assembly is not in session (an extra $35 a day if the meeting is out of state), and retirement, life insurance and health care benefits.

Topping all legislators in costs were the chairmen of the assembly's two most powerful committees, House Appropriations Chairman Robert B. Ball Sr. (D-Henrico) at $46,468, and Senate Finance Chairman and Majority Leader Hunter B. Andrews (D-Hampton) at $43,428.

The total cost to the state for the 140 legislators was $4.8 million.

The figures don't include the free trips that legislators may take at someone else's expense, such as some did as guests of the University of Virginia at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on New Year's Day.