MLA tabs for Victoria housing near $1 million, despite 36-day session

B.C. taxpayers will shell out almost $1 million this year to pay for second homes and rental suites for provincial politicians in Victoria, despite the legislature only sitting a few weeks.

The figures, obtained by the Times Colonist, show MLAs are on track to claim a maximum of $1.1 million in rental, mortgage and hotel payments, out of an allowance available so politicians can stay in Victoria while on business.

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But the legislature will sit only 36 days this year, after Premier Christy Clark’s government cancelled the fall session.

The figures also raise questions about whether taxpayer money is being spent without accountability.

Most MLAs take the money without providing receipts, as is allowed under legislature rules.

Forty-two politicians receive $1,000 a month toward renting, or paying a mortgage on owned property, up to a maximum of $12,000 a year.

They aren’t obliged to prove they are using any or all of the money for accommodation.

MLAs get more — $1,583 a month — if they provide receipts. But only nine politicians are signed up in that category, which provides a maximum reimbursement of $19,000 annually.

Twenty-seven MLAs stay in hotels, and send their bills to the legislature. They can claim up to $17,000 a year in hotels, but likely spend less than that.

Greater Victoria’s seven MLAs aren’t eligible for the perk.

The money is part of the legislature’s Capital City Living Allowance, which also provides a $61 per day food allowance for MLAs, without receipts. The base MLA salary is $101,859, and MLAs receive an additional $119,000 to run their constituency offices each year.

The accommodation allowance is too much money for politicians who are rarely in the capital, said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“In years where you had 100 sitting days, maybe it made sense to have long-term leases or to contribute to MLAs who had a second property there,” said Bateman.

“But those days seem long gone. It’s probably time to revisit that and see if there are cheaper ways of housing MLAs when they are in the capital.”

Politicians on the legislature’s management committee have been reviewing expense-account rules after B.C.’s auditor general sounded the alarm on shoddy financial management in 2012.

MLAs enter into leases and find places to stay in Victoria based on the legislature calendar, which outlines spring and fall sessions, said NDP caucus chair Shane Simpson, who sits on the committee. He blamed the Liberal government for cancelling scheduled sessions.

“This is a bit of a side story to the frustration people do feel that we’re not there, we’re not sitting, and for some reason there’s nothing for legislators to do in Victoria where we’re supposed to be there at least six months of the year,” said Simpson.

Even when the legislature isn’t sitting, MLAs often hold meetings or work on committees in Victoria, said Liberal caucus chair Michelle Stilwell, the MLA for Parksville-Qualicum.

She said MLAs still end up spending some of their own money because the $1,000 a month taxpayer allowance isn’t enough.

“You’d be hard-pressed to find somebody who isn’t spending over and above that,” said Stilwell.

“Most of them are paying out of pocket.”

MLAs on the legislative management committee meet again today to discuss further disclosure of MLA expenses.

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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