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Spending on BC Politicians Explodes

Total cost of MLA compensation soars over 50 per cent since 2001.

By Will McMartin 26 Jul 2007 | TheTyee.ca

Veteran political consultant and analyst Will McMartin is a regular columnist for The Tyee. Read more of his coumns here.

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The fat years: tracing recent climb in total MLA compensation.

Released on July 11, the province's 2007-08 public accounts show that B.C. taxpayers last year spent more than $48.8 million on pay and benefits for our 79 members of the legislative assembly, funding for their constituency offices, compensation for their legislative and constituency aides, and operation of the legislature.

That's nearly $618,000 for each and every MLA.

Six years ago, in 2000-01 -- just before Gordon Campbell became premier -- our MLAs' pay package and legislative operations cost a mere $36.3 million, or just $484,000 per MLA.

And, on top of that historic rise in legislative spending, the burden on B.C. taxpayers will grow even heavier this year -- to an estimated $58.1 million, or more than $735,000 for each MLA -- thanks to the exceptionally-generous pay package the MLAs voted for themselves in May.

Responsibility for this explosion in parliamentary spending is shared by the two political parties with seats in the legislative assembly: the BC Liberals and the New Democrats. Neither party looks good in the analysis.

All important 'Vote 1'

As many readers know, the annual provincial budget is divided into a series of "votes," each of which represents a specific item or area of government expenditure from the consolidated revenue fund. There are 50 such votes in the 2007-08 budget.

The government -- the executive council -- presents each vote to the legislative assembly for examination and approval by the assembled legislators. Under our parliamentary system, the government may not spend any public monies until taxpayers have given their consent -- which occurs through the MLAs we elect to represent us.

Vote 1 in the budget estimates is the annual appropriation for the legislative assembly. Among the items covered in this vote are the legislative library, Hansard, the clerk of the house, the sergeant-at-arms, and legislative committees.

But these are relatively minor items of expenditure; the bulk of Vote 1 is earmarked for the salaries, benefits and expenses of the MLAs, compensation for their political aides and other staffers working in the party caucus offices in Victoria, and the costs incurred (salaries, rent, equipment, utilities and so on) to operate the MLAs' constituency offices located across the province.

Team effort by BC Libs, New Dems

The vast number of votes in each year's fiscal budget is set by the Treasury Board, a cabinet committee chaired by Finance Minister Carole Taylor. Eight others -- those that provide funding for the independent officers of the legislature (the auditor general, the ombudsman, the chief electoral officer, and so on) -- are recommended by a standing parliamentary committee.

Vote 1, however, is unique. As the auditor general observed in a special report a few years ago, Vote 1 is "not required to comply with Treasury Board's Budget Instructions, or to go through the same Treasury Board review process as the rest of the government estimates."

Rather, Vote 1 is prepared by the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC), a special all-party panel currently overseen by Speaker Bill Barisoff, the BC Liberal MLA for Penticton-Okanagan Valley.

Besides Barisoff, the LAMC has three other BC Liberals -- including the government house leader (Mike De Jong) and the chair of the government caucus (John Yap) -- as well as two New Democrats -- the opposition house leader (Mike Farnworth) and the chair of the official opposition caucus (Jenny Kwan).

According to the statute that established the panel, the LAMC is responsible for the "review of estimates of expenditure for the Legislative Assembly for Vote 1 including the preparation of forecasts and analyses of expenditures and commitments...."

The act also specifies "payments to members of the Legislative Assembly to defray expenses in the performance of their duties...," and "payments or services to members for constituency offices, including payments or services for staffing, maintaining the offices, communication expenses and travel expenses...."

In short, the MLAs sitting on the LAMC have statutory authority to determine each year's budgetary allocation for MLA pay and benefits, plus staff compensation and legislative operations. Working together, the BC Liberals and New Democrats prepare Vote 1 and have it included in the annual spending estimates with little if any guidance or interference from elsewhere.

Again quoting the auditor general: "Once LAMC has approved the estimates ... they are transmitted to the Minister [of Finance] for inclusion in the annual Estimates that are laid before the Assembly."

Vote 1: The big jump

Earlier this year, when Taylor unveiled her 2007-08 budget, Vote 1 stood out from nearly all other spending items because of its massive increase in planned expenditure.

Overall, Taylor's budget boosted year-over-year outlays (that is, those from last year's budget to those in this year's budget) by just 5.6 per cent, a modest increase which largely reflects B.C.'s growing population and the bite of inflation.

Most government departments received insignificant lifts over the previous year. For example, the Ministry of Health appropriation (Vote 36) -- and remember that the BC Liberals, as well as many members of the news media, claim that health spending is out of control -- grew by 6.5 per cent. Taylor's own Finance department (Vote 31) was up 5.9 per cent, and the Ministry of Education (Vote 25) rose by a meagre 2.5 per cent.

Several departments actually saw budgetary reductions. One such was the Ministry of Children and Family Development (Vote 20), which lost 3.2 per cent from the previous year's allocation.

It was a much different story for Vote 1, however, which soared by whopping 14.8 per cent over the previous year. And within Vote 1, the amount earmarked for MLA compensation ("Members' Services") jumped by an astounding 17 per cent, while planned outlays for their staff and constituency offices ("Caucus Services") leaped upward by nearly 15 per cent.

Paish commission a sham?

Taylor's 2007-08 budget was unveiled February 20. The BC Liberal and NDP members of the LAMC, therefore, had to have prepared and presented to Taylor their Vote 1 allocation well in advance of that date -- likely some time in November or December, 2006.

So, when Premier Gordon Campbell announced on January 30, 2007, that he had appointed a three-person panel to conduct "a fair and impartial review" of MLA compensation, it is near-certain that BC Liberal and NDP MLAs already had agreed to an $8 million boost to Vote 1 -- primarily for handsome pay increases for themselves and their staff.

In other words, the so-called "Independent Commission to Review MLA Compensation," chaired by Vancouver lawyer Sue Paish, was little more than a sham. Long before Paish and her colleagues embarked on a round of public hearings in major cities, commissioned a public opinion poll of more than 600 British Columbians, consulted with "experts" in other provinces and finally released their "comprehensive" report on May 1, BC Liberal and New Democratic Party MLAs on the LAMC had laid the groundwork to award themselves an enormous lift in compensation.

Our honourable MLAs

Of course, once the Paish report was made public, the New Democratic Party MLAs purported to be shocked -- yes, really shocked! -- by its eye-popping salary and benefit recommendations. The New Democrats, you see, desperately wanted an enormous pay hike (and many NDP MLAs had made confidential presentations to Paish and her colleagues so to convince them just how hard legislators toil on behalf of their constituents), but, golly, they didn't want an increase as enormous as that proposed by the "Independent" commission.

So, in late May, as the legislative assembly debated Bill 37, the Legislative Assembly (Members' Remuneration and Pensions) Statutes Amendment Act, 2007, a succession of New Democrats rose in the House to argue -- passionately, of course -- against the pay raise that they, themselves, had cooked up with the BC Liberals a few months earlier.

On May 31, the final day of the legislature's spring sitting, all of the assembled NDP MLAs voted against Bill 37 on its second reading at 5:30 p.m., and again on third reading at 5:40 p.m. Five minutes later, at 5:45, those same New Democrats remained mute when Vote 1 was called, and each silently assented to the funding increase that would provide them with the pay raise they claimed not to want.

Sadly, the manifest hypocrisy of B.C.'s official opposition is closely matched by the greedy mendacity of our government MLAs. Consider that for the past year or so, Gordon Campbell and his BC Liberals have expressed horror at what they claim are unsustainable increases in the province's health care spending. One of the yardsticks they use to buttress this dubious assertion is the doubling of Victoria's health expenditures over the past decade.

Yet, look at the chart at the top of this page. It shows that Vote 1 spending also has nearly doubled over the same period: from just over $30 million in 1997-98, to this year's allocation of almost $60 million.

To be a BC Liberal, then, is to believe that a doubling of health outlays over a 10-year period is very, very bad, but a near-identical increase in MLA compensation is a good and desirable thing.

Full cost of MLA raise not certain

Would you be surprised to learn that this year's Vote 1 expenditures could finish even higher than the $58.1 million approved by the legislative assembly? Yup, ever the clever ones, our MLAs approved a nifty clause in Bill 37 to provide additional funds if needed.

"If, for the fiscal year [2007-08]... money is required as a result of the Act ...," section 21(1) of the statute states, "[which] is in excess of any available appropriation..." then the government can obtain those funds "from the consolidated revenue fund."

Which means that if Vote 1's $8 million increase is insufficient to cover our MLAs' pay raise, the government will simply dip into the budget's contingency fund to find the necessary cash.

So, British Columbians will have to wait until next July, when the public accounts for the current fiscal year are released, to find out the full cost of providing for our illustrious and distinguished MLAs. Can you wait for it?

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