The provincial government passed legislation, Tuesday, repealing pay raises and extra funding for MLAs which were approved unanimously in the legislature last week.
In response to public criticism of the $3.79 million pay, benefit and constituency office funding package, NDP leader Carole James publicly withdrew her support for the deal and called on the government to repeal the bill and refer it to an independent panel for public review.
Bill 17 would have increased the base MLA wage by approximately five per cent to $86,580 a year – making B.C. MLAs the fourth-best paid in Canada after Quebec, the Northwest Territories and Ontario.
In addition to the base MLA rate, government and opposition MLAs receive extra compensation for extra duties and responsibilities.
Under Bill 17 the premier would have received a $14,740 a year raise; the government and official opposition caucus chairs, government and opposition whips, and opposition house leader would have got a $14,948 raise.
In addition cabinet ministers; the parliamentary secretary; chair of the government caucus committee; deputy government whip; speaker of the house; deputy speaker; deputy chair of the committee of the whole; leader of the official opposition; leader, house leader, caucus chair and party whip of opposition parties other than the official opposition; chair or deputy chair of a select, standing or special committees would all have received a $3,000 to $6,000 raise.
Also the assistant deputy speaker, official opposition deputy whip, deputy caucus chair and deputy house leader of opposition parties other than the official opposition would have all been recognized and given a special allowance ranging from $9,000 to $23,948 per year.
The total cost of the raise for MLAs would have been $633,500. Bill 17 would have also restored the MLA pension plan which was eliminated in 1996 and created a long-term disability plan for MLAs.
The majority of the spending outlined in Bill 17 – $2.76 million -was to increase MLA’s constituency office budgets from $35,000 a year to $119,000 a year. Party caucuses would have received an extra $5,000 per year per MLA to run support operations based in Victoria.
“At this point the whole thing has been scrapped. We could have given ourselves a dollar a year raise and people would say we’re not worth it,” Prince George-Omineca MLA John Rustad said. “The political heat came on and the leader of the NDP changed her mind -and that’s fair enough. However there is some consequences to that.”
Rustad said the government and opposition worked together on Bill 17 to come up with an agreement acceptable to all sides. Both sides agreed that the bill must have the unanimous support of the legislature to pass.
James’ change of heart after the fact has fractured the trust between the government and opposition party, Rustad said.
“We were trying to form a relationship based on trust with the NDP. The consequences in the future are we can’t do that, because we know we can’t trust her word,” Rustad said. “We’re the government and we’re going to be setting the agenda. The people have elected us to govern. I don’t think I can make it clearer than that.”
Rustad said the amount of the raises has been sensationalized, while in fact the majority of spending was focused on providing better service to constituents at local offices.
Opposition MLA for Cariboo-North Bob Simpson said James should be praised, not criticized, for shifting her position once the extent of public opposition was felt.
“What Carole [James] has done was absolutely correct. We short-changed the process,” Simpson said. “She’s proved herself a different kind of leader. She’s willing to step in front of the cameras and say, ‘I made a mistake.’ Too often as politicians we just don’t put our egos in park and do that.”
Simpson said he voted in favour of the bill because it would allow him to hire extra staff for his two constituency offices, which are overwhelmed with the volume of people seeking help.
“Our folks are quasi-paralegals. There has been cuts to Workers’ Compensation – cuts to ministry staffing levels. Because of these cuts, more people are coming to us for help,” he said. “There are very high expectations as an opposition MLA, and we don’t always have the resources to help. That’s why I supported the bill, because it was a way to get those resources. But you never discount the process, and I should have known that. I should have advised Carole [James] better.”
Simpson said MLAs should receive fair compensation and benefits for the hard work they do, but that needs to be decided outside the political process.
“The very question that you can ask an MLA how they would benchmark what is fair for their own wage is the problem,” Simpson added.