MLAs’ pay frozen in attempt by politicians to ‘lead by example’

 By Sarah O’Donnell, Edmonton Journal February 7, 2013

EDMONTON – Alberta MLAs will not receive a pay bump in April after an MLA committee voted Thursday to freeze provincial politicians’ salaries in an effort to “lead by example” in the face of budget troubles.

The vote by the legislature’s member services committee to forego the scheduled pay increase seemed to be a foregone conclusion after Premier Alison Redford announced earlier in the day via Twitter that PCs would freeze MLA pay and the MLA housing allowance.

In one month, Redford’s government will deliver a 2013-14 budget being billed in advance as making “tough decisions.”

Until Thursday, MLAs were scheduled to see an increase on April 1 tied to the Consumer Price Index, which committee members heard would amount to about a one-per- cent increase this year.

Both PC and Wildrose MLAs on the committee ultimately voted in favour of the one-year freeze, which will save a total of about $200,000 this year, according to the committee clerk.

The largely symbolic freeze comes at a time when the government has signalled it will ask teachers, doctors and other public sector workers to dramatically scale back expectations, and even consider freezes in ongoing or upcoming negotiations.

“The rationale is clearly we want to lead by example,” PC whip Steve Young said Thursday after the committee’s vote. “We’re clearly facing some economic challenges due to everything from the (oil) differential and other kinds of challenges.”

MLAs currently take home a base pay package worth $156,311 a year, including $134,000 salary and $22,311 in lieu of a pension or RRSP.

On top of that, the premier earns an additional $83,700, while ministers with portfolios earn an extra $67,000. Many other positions also offer extra money, including the official opposition leader who is paid an additional $16,750. Other official opposition leaders earn $13,400 on top of their MLA remuneration. Party whips and committee chairmen also see their income topped up.

The question of MLA pay is always a political powder keg.

Thursday’s debate was no different as thorny political issues, including questions about the committee’s independence, pulled focus from the freeze itself.

Opposition MLAs on the all-party committee said they were shocked that Redford tweeted the announcement prior to the meeting.

Speaking Thursday morning after a press conference to announce the province’s 10-year plan to end homelessness, Redford said PC members on the committee told her Wednesday they planned to pursue the freeze, something that she supported.

“I think it would be absolutely absurd for MLAs to even be considering accepting any kind of an increase when we as government and as MLAs are talking to people about tough choices that need to be made, and that we’re prepared to make,” Redford said.

While all four political parties are represented on the members’ services committee, the PCs hold the majority.

Liberal leader Raj Sherman, who routinely leaves meetings dealing with questions of MLA pay because he believes compensation should be set by an independent body, called the committee a sham before leaving Thursday.

“One, we should not be discussing MLA pay,” Sherman said. “Two, the premier should not predetermine the decisions of the committee. The discussions here are a waste of time. It’s a waste of taxpayer dollars.”

NDP leader Brian Mason raised a point of privilege on Redford’s early announcement.

“It is inappropriate and, in fact, a violation of the members’ rights, for the premier to be predetermining decisions of these committees,” Mason said. “We can’t stop the PC majority from doing what the PC majority wants to do. But we should not and cannot have the premier pre-judging the deliberations of a committee.”

The debate over the freeze also reignited arguments over whether MLAs have received a raise, or not, in the last year.

During the spring election, Redford announced her government would abolish “transition allowances,” worth about $25,000 a year for an average MLA. Up until that point, MLAs’ average package of pay and perks was worth $169,000.

Then in November, the PC-dominated member services committee voted to add an extra $11,000 for MLAs to direct to their RRSPs. That’s eight per cent more than the $145,000 MLAs elected in the spring thought they would earn, which is why opposition parties have called it a pay increase.

After trying to amend the MLA pay-freeze proposal to last longer than a single year, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith voted in favour of the freeze. “We do need to show leadership as MLAs. We needed to freeze our wages this year,” Smith said.

But Smith also said the freeze was not particularly meaningful in light of the pay bump the committee approved in the fall session, and said the Wildrose will make an announcement on that issue in the near future.

“Ms. Redford has now absolutely no credibility when she talks to public sector unions. She’s gone to war with the doctors, she’s going to war with front-line workers, she’s going to war with teachers and it all goes back to the bad decision she made in December to allow her committee to vote in an eight-per-cent MLA pay increase,” Smith said. “This is just window dressing.”

NDP leader Brian Mason cast the lone vote against the freeze Thursday. In doing so, Mason said he was not arguing that MLAs should receive a raise. Instead, he said he was trying to alert people to a “race to the bottom” by the PCs and Wildrose.

“I am saying this is symbolic of what the Wildrose and the PCS have in store for the people of this province and that is deep service cuts and the wage freezes, if not rollbacks,” Mason said. “Another in a series of broken promises by this PC government.”

With just a few weeks until the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees starts contract talks with the government on a new collective agreement for 21,000 front-line workers, union president Guy Smith said the internal MLA committee has a right to set its salaries as it wishes.

Showing leadership should not be synonymous, however, with pay freezes or cuts, he said.

“Leadership in this province would be ensuring the people of this province are looked after through their public services and that proper revenues are secured to provide those services,” Smith said. “Leadership is not about cutting the frontline services people need. That is not leadership.”

Alberta Teachers’ Association president Carol Henderson said that she has never begrudged MLAs their salaries. MLAs may be trying to set an example with the freeze, but salaries are not the key issue for teachers in their negotiations with local school boards, she said.

“We’re already not looking at huge salary increases this year,” Henderson said. “Our teachers are already saying salaries are not the issue. It’s the workload issue and the conditions of practice in the classroom.”

The committee ran out of time to debate a proposed freeze to MLAs’ travel and temporary housing allowances Thursday.

With files from Karen Kleiss and Andrea Sands

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