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Call to reform MLA expenses distracts from 'other fiscal imprudence': Simpson

A government watchdog is calling on the province to make a New Year's resolution to keep MLA expenses in check, but one MLA thinks that call misses the core of B.C.'s financial troubles.

In a news release today, IntegrityBC suggested bringing in an independent analyst to review and make recommendations on ways to reform B.C.'s MLA pension plan, living allowances, and meal per diems.

B.C. MLAs are the second highest paid provincial legislators in Canada and they are placed in the top five per cent of B.C's income earners, the release stated. They also receive pensions largely from taxpayer dollars and personal sums claimed as government expenses, including living expenses and meal per diems while staying in Victoria and sitting in legislature.

But Bob Simpson, Independent MLA of Cariboo-North and former NDP MLA, doesn't think an independent analyst will make any difference. He told The Tyee an independent panel decided on the current financial structure of the legislature in 2007.*

"The focus on MLA pensions and benefits distracts from a lot of other fiscal imprudence that is going on in the budget," he said.

Simpson, who has publicized all of his expenses, agrees that more transparency is needed, but said the current model was regarded as fair compensation by the panel. The panel found it to be the best way to save taxpayer money, reduce administrative costs, and make it simpler for MLAs, he said.

"You don't fix anything by continuing to feed the cynicism of voters. Voters think politicians are overpaid. As if resolving that issue resolves the fiscal crisis that all these jurisdictions have," he said.

Simpson argues that even if MLA pensions were stripped and they were given minimal compensation, it wouldn't solve the government's budget constraints.

"No one expects an MLA to subsist on Kraft Dinner, couch surf, or give up a pension plan," IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis is quoted as saying in the release. "It isn't about nickel and diming, it's about leading by example and striking the right balance between the costs of being an MLA with existing public and private sector policies."

It's hard to get an accurate sense of MLA expenses when one of the three options for MLA living allowances outside of the Capital Regional District doesn't require receipts for administrative efficiency, Travis stated, adding that MLAs' claims for living and meal expenses are high given the amount of time spent in legislature is minimal.

For example, at least 43 MLAs billed the $1,000 monthly allowance from April to September, though the legislature only sat for 24 days in April and May. Eight MLAs billed over $6,000.

The Office of the Speaker at B.C.'s Legislative Assembly, the department in charge of MLA expenditures, was not available to comment by posting time.

*Story corrected Dec. 12 at 10:15 a.m.

Rachel Bergen is completing a practicum at The Tyee.

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