Acommittee of MLAs undoubtedly felt justified in voting to extend the transition allowance to recalled legislators, but it would have been more convincing if the decision hadn't been made in secret.
Times were tumultuous in February 2011 when the B.C. legislature's management committee held one of its infrequent meetings. It was during the outcry over the harmonized sales tax, and four Liberal MLAs were the target of recall campaigns.
The committee was discussing whether to give the transitional allowance, previously given to MLAs who retired or were defeated, to legislators who were recalled.
The allowance - up to 15 months' base salary, as much as $127,000 - was originally designed to help departing MLAs find new jobs, but it wasn't available to MLAs who resigned or were recalled. At that 2011 meeting, which wasn't publicized or open to the public, Liberal and NDP members of the committee voted to extend the allowance to recalled MLAs.
The committee members might have thought it would be throwing gas on the fire to let the public know they had just voted themselves, and other MLAs, a golden parachute in case things got nasty. And perhaps that was an accurate assessment, given the mood of the moment, but making the decision in secret was the wrong thing to do.
The legislature management committee came under fire from the auditor general in July for failing to follow basic accounting practices and neglecting to keep track of MLA expenses. Speaker Bill Barisoff, who chairs the committee, and other MLAs have vowed to improve the committee's operations and be more open about expenditures.
They have taken some steps in that direction, but when they do it grudgingly, it looks more like damage control than a concerted effort to fix the system.
It points to the problems that arise when MLAs decide on how much to pay themselves in salaries and benefits.
It's a built-in conflict of interest, and would better be handled by an independent, disinterested body. At the very least, all such discussions and decisions should be done out in the open.
When people run for public office, they put their careers on hold. Some will earn less as MLAs than they would in their private careers.
We agree that MLAs returning to private life after public service need help to adjust. It's especially difficult for cabinet ministers who are restricted in what they can do for two years after leaving office. An allowance to ease that transition makes sense.
British Columbia needs quality people in the legislature - people who could command high salaries in the private sector. We should pay them fairly. Since an MLA merit-pay system would be impossible to devise and operate, we have to pay all MLAs the same base rate. Some will be underpaid, some will be overpaid.
How much MLAs receive in salaries and benefits is a legitimate topic for debate. But that discussion should be out in the open, not in private meetings. It's simply wrong for the employees - the MLAs - to decide how much to pay themselves without consulting the employer - the tax-paying public.
A successful recall would mean that the MLA was effectively being fired by the voters. In that case, a $127,000 severance is difficult to defend.
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