Public account report slammed

A recently released report detailing public account figures for the province shows how much taxpayers spend each year to foot the bill for an MLA.

MLA John Rustad

MLA John Rustad

A recently released report detailing public account figures for the province shows how much taxpayers spend each year to foot the bill for an MLA.

The report was the first MLA expense report to be released in B.C. and was long awaited, but it has now come under fire for falling short of providing any detail.

MLAs aren’t obligated to provide any explicit details of their spending in the report, other than expense totals and the basic annual remuneration amount.

Critics have since slammed the report for excluding an itemized list of expenditures for each MLA.

According to the public accounts report, Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad chewed through $48,533 in travel expenses last fiscal year. Although not the biggest spender on the MLA list, he is close to the top. Rustad’s travel allowance is on par with an annual average wage for B.C. taxpayers, however he said he also has one of the largest and most remote ridings in the province.

Rustad said when he travels to Victoria he makes a trip to Prince George Airport then has to make a stop over in Vancouver before arriving in Victoria. “Unfortunately it all adds up,” he said.

Rustad said there is no longer a direct flight available from Prince George to Victoria. “It is unfortunate because a return trip requires two stop overs in Vancouver every time I travel to Victoria.”

In each fiscal year, an allowance for travel within an MLA’s riding is paid quarterly. As Nechako Lakes falls under the coastal and remote category, a total of $11,580 is paid to Rustad every quarter, which equates to $46,320 per year.

For travel outside an MLA’s constituency, they are reimbursed for the cost of travel and accommodations on top of their ‘within riding’ travel allowance.

For the year ended March 31, 2011, MLA for Skeena, Robin Austin reported a travel tab of $42,773 and a capital city living allowance expense of $15,863, Doug Donaldson MLA for Stikine reported travel costs of $44,442 and a capital city living allowance of $20,405. He also collected an additional stipend of $7,144 as a deputy chair, while Prince George-Mackenzie MLA Pat Bell chalked up a $69,467 travel bill, topping the MLA expense list.

On top of the travel expenses, MLAs can also claim a $61 per day meal allowance when in Victoria or traveling throughout the province, however the per diem amount is not claimable when an MLA is traveling within their own riding.

No receipts need to be presented for the meal allowance, as it’s a calculated flat rate. MLA’s can therefore choose to spend less and pocket the remaining funds.

MLA’s, such as Rustad, who reside outside the Victoria area are also provided with money to pay for accommodations while attending the Legislature. The allowance ranges from an additional $12,000 to $19,000 per year depending on which option an MLA chooses between renting, staying in a hotel or owning a home in Victoria.

Rustad said that he opted for a $1,000 per month capital city living allowance, as he shares the rent for an apartment in Victoria with a colleague. This, coupled with the per diem meal allowance totaled $12,000 last year.

Annual remuneration for each MLA comes in the form of basic compensation and added additional salaries. Currently the annual basic compensation for each of the 85 MLAs is $101,859

MLAs who hold parliamentary or ministerial office, such as Rustad also receive an additional salary that corresponds to a percentage of the basic compensation. If an MLA holds two or more positions for which an additional salary is granted, the MLA is entitled only to the higher salary.

Last year as parliamentary secretary, Rustad received an additional stipend of $12,307 per year, as well as a $544 annual allowance as a committee chair.

A constituency office allowance is also paid to MLAs. Each MLA is given an allowance of $9,916.67 per month, or $119,000 per fiscal year to cover the operating costs of their constituency office.

This amount is intended to cover staff salaries and other office expenses and does not need to be used to cover office lease agreements, insurance, heating other related costs, which are paid from another fund.

This allowance also does not need to be used for the purchase of any computers, telephones and other office equipment, which are all provided to MLAs by the Legislative Assembly.

Rustad said he understands the public are interested in a more detailed report regarding expenditures and added that within the next couple of weeks he will have a detailed report of his spending posted on his public Facebook account.

“People should know what the expenses are as an MLA, some people may think the expenses are high, some may not, but it is important for people to see what is involved.”

Rustad added that his staff are currently working on the detailed report.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation estimate that in addition to an MLA’s $100,000 plus salary they are able to claim additional expenses of up to $140,000 per year. The federation also states that in Nova Scotia, an 2010 audit of MLA expenses revealed massive waste, with taxpayers footing the bill for politicians’ high definition big screen TV’s, video cameras, art work, custom made office furniture, patio furniture and espresso machines.

Nova Scotia’s auditor general blamed the excessive and unreasonable claims on inadequate spending control.

Many of the items were subsequently donated to charities or repaid in full by the MLA’s in question and the issue sparked the need for  all MLAs expenses to be publicly reported.

All MPs, including Nathan Cullen, MP for Skeena Bulkley Valley and Dick Harris, MP for Cariboo-Prince George have a starting base salary of $157,731. The most recent public disclosure expenditures available on Cullen’s website report he spent $274,679 on staff and ‘other’ expenses, $34,269 on travel, $11,500 on advertising, $24,572 for an office lease and $15,000 on telephone expenses for the 2009-2010 fiscal year.

John Rustad’s Facebook account can be accessed at www.facebook.com/john.rustad.