Tuesday, September 29, 2009

MLAs' meal allowance just the tip of the iceberg

Ida Chong is the one we’ve all been talking about, but this meal-allowance business is much bigger than the $6,000 per-diem Chong claimed in the last fiscal year.
I can feel it in the public reaction. Like me, people see the Chong story as symbolizing much more than just one politician’s per-diem spending.
There’s real outrage and betrayal in the letters to the editor and on the radio call-in shows. Genuine hurt. It’s a shame that MLAs have reacted by circling the wagons and closing ranks, because this is an important moment to try to understand.
I’ve been surprised at my own wounded reaction, especially after learning this week that MLAs don’t even have to submit receipts for the $61 per diem they’re eligible for when doing official government work in Victoria or Vancouver. (“It costs more to administer the receipting process than to just set a flat rate,” said a communications spokesman with the Finance Ministry.)
Call me naive, but I had no idea.
Sure, I’m all for reimbursing our hard-working MLAs for legitimate expenses they incur. I know they’re putting in long hours and sacrificing family time, and all those other things that hard-working people everywhere can relate to.
But just handing them a wad of cash so they can eat, park and sleep at the taxpayers’ expense raises questions for me, and not just in an eye-rolling, cynical-about-politics kind of way. Before government started cutting vital public services last year, did anybody even consider steps to reduce these kinds of expenditures?
I browsed the government Web site for more information on the Capital City allowance that landed Chong in the news, and quickly found myself in a labyrinth of per-diems and meeting payments I hadn’t known existed.
The same arrangement that MLAs have is available to certain classes of civil servants. They get $47 a day, and $61 if their work on a particular day involves hanging out with an MLA or senior bureaucrats getting the higher rate.
Whether anyone actually spends the money on food is entirely up to them. It’s really just a non-taxable bonus on top of a (generous) salary.
The thousands of non-government people who sit on the province’s many advisory boards, tribunals and review panels can also claim meal per-diems. But I doubt many of them bother, seeing as the real money is in attending meetings, most of which pay from $350 to $750 per meeting.
I can’t tell you what all the costs would add up to, because nothing is gathered in one place. I sense from the government’s own slow response to my query for more information on this subject that they’d be hard-pressed to tell you, either.
But clearly it’s a potful.
Consider this one small example:  We paid almost $800,000 in the last fiscal year for 268 British Columbians to attend meetings of B.C.’s 75 Property Assessment Review panels.  Some panel appointees made as much as $10,000 from the meetings, held Feb. 1 to March 15 every year for unhappy homeowners wanting to appeal their provincial assessments.
And that’s just one small for-instance. Land yourself on any of the big government-appointed boards in B.C. and you’ll get $750 every time you go to a meeting.
That’s the price of doing business, some would argue. But during a recession like this one, no stone should go unturned when government is looking for savings.
Were these expenses scrutinized and considered for reduction? Were MLAs approached to reduce their own claims on public money?
One less meeting of Property Assessment Review panels would save a bundle - maybe even enough to spare a high-school-upgrade program for young moms. MLAs who were conscious of their spending and claimed only for what they spent could have made a real impact on community services that have now been lost.
Government has felt the pain of the recession, of course. Travel spending was cut in half in the past year, to $39 million, and office expenses were cut by a third. It’s been hard times for civil servants working in ministries singled out for layoffs, and for staff and clients of increasingly starved public services.
But the per-diem claims suggest that at the political level, it was business as usual. The MLAs took what the rules allowed them to take. The paid meetings continued unabated. A typical front-line community worker would have to work more than five days to earn what some people get paid just for a half-day meeting.
It’s a grave betrayal of the public trust, and profoundly unsettling for what it reveals about how our government views us. Serfs, let ‘em hear you roar.

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