MLAs make big bucks for committee work

MLAs Norm Letnick and Rob Fleming got an awful lot of extra money for almost no work last year.

MLAs Norm Letnick and Rob Fleming got an awful lot of extra money for almost no work last year.

Letnick, a Liberal from Kelowna-Lake Country, was paid $13,353 – on top of MLAs’ base pay of $101,859 – to chair a legislative committee that met once, for 22 minutes. Fleming, a New Democrat from Victoria-Swan Lake, was paid $8,903 as deputy chair.

The two led the grandly named Select Standing Commitee on Parliamentary Reform, Ethical Conduct, Standing Orders and Private Bills.

The committee met once in the last fiscal year, rubber stamping two housecleaning bills for non-profits. It took less than half an hour.

Letnick and Fleming didn’t set the pay. All MLAs approved the pay rates after a 2007 report on MLAs compensation. They took the money though.

They weren’t alone. New Democrat Jenny Kwan was paid $4,437 as deputy chair of the legislative initiatives committee, which met twice, for three hours, to discuss the HST petition.

The legislative committee on children and youth met four times in the fiscal year. Chair Joan McIntyre was paid $13,353 for the work; deputy chair Maurine Karagianis, $8,206.

That was a more serious committee. There was work between meetings and a five-and-a-half hour session on poverty in Vancouver. But the chair was still paid more than $3,000 per meeting.

On one hand, you can’t fault the MLAs. The pay scale was put in place by the legislature. Their parties backed them for the positions. Letnick notes he had the second lowest travel expenses among Interior and Northern MLAs and worked long and diligently. “I work really hard to make sure I can defend everything that I have control over,” he said.

Still, $13,353 is a lot of money for presiding over one meeting.

The pay didn’t used to be so grand. Until 2007, MLAs got $6,000 for chairing a committee and $3,000 for serving as vice-chair.

The committee set up to review MLAs’ compensation and expense allowances decided that wasn’t enough.

The three-member panel’s recommendation of a 29-per-cent increase in base pay, from $76,100 to $98,000, got most of the attention. But it also recommended big increases in the wide range of extra pay that sees just over half the MLAs in the legislature get a salary top-up. (The actual average pay rate is over $120,000.)

Compensation for committee chairs, for example, more than doubled, from $6,000 to $14,700; vice-chairs got an even larger increase, from $3,000 to $9,800. The committee didn’t explain why the compensation should be tripled.

Parliamentary secretaries – helpers for ministers – were receiving an extra $6,000 a year. Now they are paid an extra  $15,000. Caucus chairs got $6,000. Now they are paid more than $20,000.

And of course the extra pay for being premier doubled, from $45,000 to more than $90,000.

The increases, including a much more generous pension plan, were all recommended by an independent panel.

But the government picked the panelists – two senior lawyers and a business professor. Their average income, I’d wager, was well over $200,000. Their perspective on compensation would inevitably be skewed by their own experiences. Unlike past compensation committees, there was no one earning the average B.C. wage of abut $40,000.

The money, in the grand scheme of things, is small. MLAs work long hours and, in my experience, mostly seek office out of a real desire to improve life in their communities.

But the huge increases show a disconnect between the lives of British Columbians who are also working hard, taking on extra tasks and count themselves fortunate to get any pay raises. The $13,353 Letnick got for chairing one 20-minute meeting is 23 per cent more than a disabled person on assistance gets to live on for an entire year.

MLAs deserve fair pay. But it is troubling that a sense of entitlement seems to have taken hold, one that distances them from the realities of life for most British Columbians.

Footnote: For more than 20 years, the Washington state has had a 16-person salary commission to deal with pay for elected officials. One member is selected at random from the voters’ list in each of nine geographical areas. The politicians appoint five members – one each from universities, business, personnel management, the law and organized labour. The state’s HR department and universities get to name one person each. Other states have taken similar approaches.