MLAs freeze wages again, but Tories reject pay review

MLA wages will be frozen for a second straight year but an all-party committee-- dominated by Tories--has rejected a proposal to strike up an independent panel to review politicians' pay and perks.

The proposal was raised Wednesday by NDP Leader Brian Mason and supported by the Liberals, but Conservative politicians on the members' services committee argued an autonomous probe of MLA compensation would be a waste of taxpayer dollars. Tory whip Frank Oberle suggested an independent panel would likely recommend a substantial hike to politicians' pay, as was the case in the mid-1990s.

"I can see it coming--the recommendation will be for another raise," he told the committee, adding the ultimate decision rests with MLAs on the members' services committee. "It doesn't matter what you do," Oberle said.
"You're going to have to make the decision in this room, and you're going to have to defend it in the public."
A public furor erupted last year after all MLAs received hefty pay hikes shortly after the Conservatives' landslide election victory.

In addition to annual raises tied to the growth in Alberta's average weekly earnings, backbench Tories and opposition members were awarded greater compensation for attending committee meetings.

Meanwhile, Premier Ed Stelmach and cabinet granted themselves, behind closed doors, raises ranging between 30 and 34 per cent. The boost hiked ministers' salaries by $42,000 and the premier's wages by $54,000 -- an increase that, at the time, made Stelmach the highest-paid provincial leader. (In 2008-09, Stelmach earned almost $225,000 in total remuneration and benefits, while each of his 23 cabinet ministers snared about $200,000 in overall compensation.)

Proponents of an independent review of MLA pay and perks blasted the committee's decision to reject Mason's motion calling for an external probe."There's clearly a need to remove the conflict of interest that exists when MLAs set their own salaries and benefits," Liberal Leader David Swann said.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan contended most Albertans would favour an autonomous probe."Virtually no one has what MLAs have, which is a system that allows them to essentially set their own wages," McGowan said.

While the members' services committee voted against launching an external examination of MLA compensation, it approved extending a freeze on politicians' pay for 2010-11.Wages were frozen for this fiscal year as the Alberta government plunged into deficit, most recently projected at $4.3 billion in 2009-10.

But Scott Hennig of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation-- which is advocating the province strike up a citizens' assembly made up of randomly selected Albertans to review MLA pay -- criticized the freeze as paltry. Hennig said MLAs should have rolled back their wages to mirror modest cuts made in October to overall compensation paid to the premier and ministers (a six per cent cut for the premier and three per cent reduction for ministers).

A third of all MLAs' base salary is tax free."It's ridiculous," Hennig said of the freeze. "It's frankly not a huge sacrifice after they gave themselves huge raises in 2008."

McGowan dubbed the MLA pay freeze a "political ploy" to wrestle wage freezes from the public sector, while Ken Kobly, president of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, called it a prudent move in light of the government's fiscal state.

The deficit-laden Conservative government is holding the line on manager salaries for two years and has said it wants public-sector workers, including teachers and medical workers, to follow suit.

"They're showing leadership" on the salary front, said Kobly, who believes the province's process for assessing politicians' pay is fair.

In lieu of an autonomous probe, Speaker Ken Kowalski, chairman of the members' services committee, is conducting an internal review of MLA compensation, comparing Alberta politicians to their provincial counterparts.

Both he and Tory MLA George VanderBurg, who represents Whitecourt-Ste. Anne, said they haven't heard a backlash from their constituents over MLA pay. "I've never once been asked in my constituency about being overpaid. Never once," VanderBurg told the committee. "Maybe it's a city thing. I don't know.

"In arguing for an autonomous probe, Mason said politicians have an obligation to address public concerns over the model used to set pay.

Calgary Herald, Thurs Dec 3 2009
Byline: Renata D'aliesio

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