Critics charge increased RRSP benefits for MLAs marks return of transition allowance

By Darcy Henton, Calgary Herald November 6, 2012

EDMONTON — Alberta MLAs have awarded themselves a boost in RRSP benefits to offset some of the income they relinquished when Premier Alison Redford eliminated their generous transition allowances.A Conservative-dominated all-party legislature committee voted Tuesday to double the amount they get in cash from the public purse to purchase RRSPs, but to get the maximum benefit they would have to contribute some of their own money.

Three opposition MLAs on the standing committee on member services voted against the motion and Liberal Leader Raj Sherman abstained from voting because he doesn’t believe MLAs should be deciding their own pay and retirement benefits.

Critics said the third attempt in recent weeks to claw back some of the money from the loss of the so-called “gold-plated” transition or severance pay was shocking, given the angry reception previous attempts received from the public.

“I really didn’t think they would make another go at this,” said Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. “I thought they were bloodied up enough. I didn’t think they would make another charge for the Russian guns.”

Fildebrandt said the governing Tories have accomplished what they set out to do initially in doubling the $11,000 they received annually in cash they can, but are not obligated to, put into RRSPs.

“It’s just fiddling with the math a little bit,” he said. “It’s baffling these people actually think they can get away with this and people wouldn’t notice.”

He said the decision to hike the taxpayer’s contribution to MLAs RRSP benefits should be made in the legislature where every MLA would have to “put their vote where the money is.”

“The premier needs to vote on this,” he said. “she is ultimately responsible for this. She made a pledge during the election to scrap severance payments — and not to scrap severance and double retirement benefits. She need needs to stand up and be accountable for this decision and vote on it in the legislature herself.”

Deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk described the RRSP contribution increase as an actual decrease because it amounts to less than the perks MLAs received prior to the last provincial election and is a little more than half the compensation recommended by an independent commissioner, retired justice Jack Major, in a report commissioned by the legislature.

“At the end of the day when you look at the entire compensation package of MLAS as to what it was at election time compared to what Justice Major recommended to what they actually decided on today they took a massive decrease in remuneration as a package,” he said. “Alberta is the only province that has zero committee pay for any committee MLAs work on. It is the only province that has zero pension for MLAs when they retire or leave voluntarily or not. … We’re the only province in Canada that doesn’t have a transition allowance for MLAs who leave the legislature.”

Lukaszuk said the MLAs retirement benefits have dropped from 34 per cent of their gross pay to 16.65 per cent.

But Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who voted against the motion, said the PCs voted themselves an 8.5 per cent pay raise and refused to even defer it until after the budget is balanced.“I am pretty sure Ms. Redford is going to hear from Albertans,” she said. “I can tell you Albertans have no appetite to see MLAs increasing their own pay and doing so at a rate that is well above inflation and doing so when they can’t even balance the budget.”

NDP leader Brian Mason said MLAs deserve a modest pension, but not one that exceeds the pensions paid to nurses, teachers and police.

“We’re already extremely well paid as MLAs and I don’t think there is any appetite for anything that looks like a raise,” he said. “The Conservative caucus continues to attempt to turn this from a retirement issue to an overall compensation issue and I think they are going to feel a lot of voter discontent with respect to it.”

Sherman slammed the government for voting itself a pay raise.

“This called public service — not getting rich off the public,” he said. “Pay should be fair for MLAs and it should also be independently set.”

The committee deferred a motion to have a three-member panel of judges review MLA pay when they were advised they could not compel judges to do that without legislation.

The committee also delayed implementation of a plan to put MLA expenses online, citing the need for the Legislative Assembly Office to have more time to set up the website. Rather than having the first expenses posted online in December, Albertans will now have to wait until April 2013 to see how MLAs are spending taxpayers’ money.

[email protected]

© Copyright (c) The Calgary Herald