Friday, July 16, 2010

Chong’s big meal claim and MLAs’ sense of entitlement

It’s not really Ida Chong’s fault. She’s a cultural victim.
The minister for health living and sport ran into a storm of criticism when the Times Colonist reported she claimed almost $6,000 in meal allowances last year – while living a few miles from the legislature.
All MLAs can claim a $61 a day for meals when the legislature is sitting or they are in Victoria or Vancouver on government business. (If they live outside the capital, they can also claim up to $19,000 a year to rent or buy a place in the capital.) The capital city allowance, it’s called.
Chong, the public accounts revealed, claimed $5,921 in meal expenses — about 98 days worth. Even though she lives about 10 kilometres from the legislature. And the legislature only sat for 60 days out of the year,
Pack a lunch like the rest of us, angry voters said, especially when your government is cutting programs and telling people belt-tightening is needed.
Chong argued all MLAs collected similar amounts. (Unfortunately for her, Murray Coell, her neighbour and fellow cabinet minister, undermined that defence by claimed $1,321.)
And she said, correctly, that the meal claims were within the rules.
Which raises two underlying issues.
First, the rules are remarkably generous. Most employers reimburse reasonable expenses when people travel on business. But they don’t usually give you $61 for food if you have a long day at the office. MLAs don’t have to provide receipts. If they buy a $6 sandwich for lunch and a $10 pizza for supper, they can still claim the full $61.
It’s not just the expense claims. MLAs have increased their base pay by 34 per cent in the last five years to $99,000. Most get extra money for various roles. Cabinet ministers, like Chong, are paid $152,000.
But the average wage in B.C. rose about 12 per cent in the same period.
MLAs also voted to give themselves a generous pension plan, with taxpayers picking up a large part of the cost.
But only 25 per cent of British Columbians have any workplace pension plan. The majority of taxpayers are paying for a good pension plan for MLAs while they have no plan of their own.
The gap between the rulers and the ruled has widened.
The examples are striking. MLAs think they need up to $19,000 for a part-time home in Victoria. But the government expects a disabled person income assistance to find accommodation for less than $4,500 a year. Perhaps MLAs need nicer places than someone with a disability — but four times as nice?
Chong’s $6,000 in meal claims is twice the income assistance provided to a single person for all living expenses, except rent, for an entire year. It’s five times the monthly income of someone working at minimum wage.
The disparities suggest MLAs have a high opinion of their value and importance — and a low opinion of their constituents’ worth.
Second, MLAs’ sense of entitlement is showing. Just because the rules allow a $61-a-day claim doesn’t mean they have to grab the money. MLAs could submit expenses that reflect what they actually paid for food. At incomes of $100,000 and up, they could opt to pay for their own lunches.
Chong is not an exception. Her claims were revealed because cabinet ministers’ expenses are reported as part of the public accounts.
The five New Democrat MLAs from the capital region have rallied around Chong and — appallingly — refused to say how much they claimed for expenses. Taxpayers are paying the bills, but according to the New Democrats, it’s none of their business what the cost is.
Which suggests that the claims are high and raises real concerns about the kind of accountability and openness an NDP government would provide.
No one should begrudge MLAs an adequate income. But many people are rightly angry at this casual excess.
Footnote: The latest pay and benefit increases followed the recommendations of a three-person review panel appointed by the premier. But the trio included a senior labour relations lawyer, a former B.C. Supreme Court justice back in private practice and a University of B.C. business professor. Their average income was likely north of $250,000, shaping their perspectives.
For more than 20 years, the State of Washington has had a 16-person salary commission to deal with pay for elected officials. A member is selected at random from the voters' list in each of nine geographical areas. The politicians appoint five members — one each from universities, business, professional personnel management, the law and organized labour. The state's HR department and universities get to name one person each.


DPL said...

Next time I get a request for funds from any BC political paper the first question I will put is. How much of the per diem have you been collecting? if it's high I will then suggest she or he might donate some of it to their party and leave me alone with my fixed income. To see NDP MLA's shuffling up to the trough doesn't bode well for folks who are supposed to be looking after the little folk. I sure expected better performance from them than the other party. Jody Patterson's column in the T/C today tells it better than I can. Go read it folks. My God, their pension is gold plated and the salary sure beats anything most of us common follk could even dream of getting. No wonder MLA's spend so much time trying to keep elected.

Anonymous said...


I'm going to put a bit of the opposite case, although I agree that the gap between citizen and elected official is too large and still growing.

I worked for an MLA well over a decade ago. And let me tell you it is a hard life. Even when she grocery shopped at midnight she would get stopped and chatted up on random issues. People showed up on her doorstep constantly. Her kids were hit on and troubled people made ominous threats against her and her family. It was not a great life but she worked hard at it out of a sense of duty.
There are very few jobs that carry that kind of personal burden.

In that context, I find the current attack on expenses very odd. It is an attack on someone who followed the rules, which seems to me disingenuous. You may disagree with the rules but then change them - you provide compelling reasons for that.

More importantly this government has provided reams of evidence that it has broken the rules. That's fair game and should be attacked but there seems to be less appetite for that than for a story like this. I find that sad.

Anonymous said...

per diem
Etymology: Medieval Latin
Date: 1520
: by the day : for each day


Financial Administration Act
Official Duties Expense Regulation

Meal allowance [.PDF]
7 If an official is not at home while discharging official duties, the official may be paid, for each
day or portion of a day the official discharges those official duties, either
(a) subject to paragraph (b), an allowance of $61 per day, or
(b) if the official claims an amount that is less than $61 per day, the amount the official claims.


Provincial Government Service
15th Master Agreement
Article 27.9 Meal Allowances
Employees on travel status away from their headquarters shall be entitled to a meal allowance for the time
spent away from headquarters.

Breakfast $11.50
Lunch 13.25
Dinner 22.25

Anonymous said...

C.1.4 Account Verification Process

Core Policy -


The account verification process can be tailored to reflect the risk level of the travel reimbursement claims under review. All high-risk transactions must be subjected to a review of all relevant aspects of the transaction, including a review of the original receipts.

For low-risk travel reimbursement claims, the expense authority officer can conduct a "reasonableness check" to review only the most relevant aspects of each selected transaction (i.e., the payee is entitled to or eligible for the payment, the amount being reimbursed is reasonable in relation to the travel itinerary, the transaction is accurate and completed correctly, and complies with travel policies and procedures).
3. Definitions of Risk:

* High-Risk - transactions with the following criteria would be considered high-risk: highly sensitive transactions, for example travel claims that are likely to be the subject of Freedom of Information (FOI) or Public Accounts Committee requests (Groups III and IV), out-of-province travel, non-employee/contractor travel expenses, etc. This category could also include travel reimbursements of large dollar amounts or travel claims that are considered highly error prone (i.e., ministries are familiar with the current error rate from particular branches/offices).

* Low-Risk - transactions with the following characteristics would be considered low-risk: transactions that are not sensitive in nature, or have a low error rate with a low dollar value impact of error (typically low to medium dollar value, i.e., routine travel reimbursement claims).


Meals Inside Headquarters


Meal expenses incurred inside headquarters (within a 32 km radius) due to job responsibilities will be reimbursed as follows:

Group I - as per the applicable collective agreement or terms and conditions of employment (if a travel meal allowance is claimed, an overtime meal allowance may not be claimed for the same meal period);

Group II - meal expenses incurred within headquarters or geographic location due to job responsibilities are reimbursed in accordance with PSA Policy Statement 17. Travel, Appendix 1 sec.1 (6);

Group III - for the actual meal expenses incurred; and

Group IV - officials are not designated a headquarters. No additional claims above his or her daily meal allowance can be made.

Claims must be submitted on a memorandum justifying the expenditure and processed by cheque requisition form.

It is not the intention to provide meal expenses where employees can be reasonably expected to provide their own meals or where they are not entitled by a collective agreement. Meals considered as a business expense are an exception to the above and should be claimed on a Business Expense Approval (BEA) form.


receipts ARE required

cherylb said...

People know what to expect when they take on the job of MLA. That makes it hard to sympathize with their work load and they certainly get more than fairly compensated for it. Most of them didn't make near that amount of money in their private lives.

So then you are saying that Ida provided receipts that proved she spent $61 per day on food? and expensive diet she has.

The rules need to be changed. And why are we paying $19,000 for an MLA to purchase a temporary place in Victoria? They can bunk together in a hotel like the rest of the world does.

DPL said...

It's great to set rates when the ones getting the result is the same folks who set rates. Collective agreements are bargained. The MLA's set their own rate of pay, their own pension, eat at a subsidized place and get paid far more than most of us ever dream of being paid. Then they have the gall to say that they ran to represent the people. Never mentioning which people. seems we are returning to the situation where some very expensive wine was being drank on our dime. I think the guy who got in trouble over that was a Socred MLA called Heinman

Anonymous said...

quite appalling....I have worked for the Provincial Government for many years here in Victoria. and you can be assured that we employees are NOT allowed to claim for meals if we are working locally, no matter how crazy or busy our day is (I work in MCFD) and social workers often have to work crazy hours and don't get a chance to eat either but they are expected to either bring their own lunch from home or pay for their own...the only time employees can claim for meal expenses is when they are working OUT OF TOWN

Anonymous said...

Strange, the citizens get taxed to death, because of the economic down turn. However, the governing officials, get huge raises and enormous pensions, and, their expenses are insane. Campbell had given his useless self a 53% wage hike, his ministers got 29%. Rumor has it, Campbell will have a $2 million per year pension. BC is a morass of corruption. There are not enough little guys working, to pay for all that corruption. So, Campbell and Hansen, gave us the, impossible budget taxes, and the HST. They have put this province, in debt for billions. There are not enough jobs out there, so, homes, vehicles, savings and E.I. has run out. How in the hell, are the citizens, who have lost everything they had, with no jobs, are supposed to pay for all of that? There, isn't even, a spec of logistics.

Ken/Mary said...

Of course the rich get rich and the poor get left behind! What other result can be expected in a percentage world? For simplicity, give a 5% raise to everyone and look at the results. The low income worker making $30,000.00 per year gets a whopping increase of $1500.00. The moderately paid worker getting $100,000.00 gets $5000.00 Who just jumped ahead in wages? Maybe it is time to give raises in dollars instead of percentages of earnings? I think if this approach had been taken long ago, we would not have the saying "the rich get richer and the poor get..........." Thanks for your time!