Friday, May 18, 2007

Pay and pensions deal like a lottery win for MLAs

There's something terrible about the Liberals' move to hand every MLA a windfall the size of a lottery jackpot.
The compensation bill that will be passed within two weeks could mean an average one-time pension contribution payment worth about $400,000 per MLA.
That's not including the wage increase or the cost of the new pension plan going forward. It's what you will pay, as a taxpayer, if MLAs exercise their options to make the pension plan improvements retroactive as far back as 1996.
And that's the just a rough estimate of the average amount. The transfer from you to them will be much greater for the long-serving members.
Tally it up. A raise of 30 per cent for all MLAs and more than 50 per cent for the premier. The current pension plan, which costs taxpayers $6,900 per year per MLA, replaced with a plan that costs taxpayers $35,000 per year - a 500-per-cent increase.
And on top of that, an average $400,000 one-time contribution to each MLAs' retirement plan.
From you, to them.
Of course, notes Mike de Jong, the MLAs who want to buy retroactive pension benefits will also have to pay part of the cost.
Who knows, de Jong said in the legislature, maybe some won't even be able to afford to. It could cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars, de Jong said.
But here's the deal. For every $1 an MLA spends to improve his retroactive pension benefits, the public - that's you - will put it more than $4.
Maybe there are MLAs who wouldn't grab that chance. Most of us sure would.
But then most of us would never get that kind of chance either. We can't vote ourselves a lottery win.
I'm probably sounding a little bitter here. Partly, I suppose I just feel betrayed. I like most of the MLAs I've met. I've certainly admired most of them, especially for their basic desire to make their communities and the province a better place to live.
And I think they deserve a raise from the current base pay of $76,100. (Most MLAS get extra money for various roles.) Some benefits, like long-term disability, need improving. Cabinet ministers, at $110,000, deserve more. Their deputies now sometimes make twice as much. And the premier, at $121,000, is underpaid.
But these increases are just wrong. A corporate management team that voted itself this kind of compensation package would pilloried for reckless greed.
It's especially wrong because the Liberals' justification is so lame. The pay and pension changes were recommended by a three-person panel. But the panelists - two senior lawyers and a business professor - had average incomes likely well over $200,000. Unlike previous such committees, there were no people who earned the average B.C. wage of under $40,000.
And even the panel didn't really prepare a unanimous recommendation. The three reached agreement and then one member left for Europe. The other two added the rich pension plan recommendations after that.
There have been lots of political games played over the raise.
The Liberals, setting the rules, said that all MLAs had seven days after the bill is passed to accept the raise and the pension, or opt out forever.
The aim was to make the NDP look hypocritical by presenting an all-or-nothing choice. If New Democrats voted against the raise, but took it, they would look bad.
The New Democrats say they'll take the package and give the raise to charity. The public will judge whether that's an acceptable compromise.
Of course, the Liberals decision to play politics comes at a price. Letting MLAs take only part of the package would likely have saved the taxpayers money.
But it wouldn't have been so politically clever.
Going into politics shouldn't mean unreasonable sacrifice. But it shouldn't mean handing yourself a winning lottery ticket, either.
Footnote: For more than 20 years, the State of Washington has had a 16-person salary commission to deal with pay for elected officials. One 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. Other states have taken similar approaches.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Liberals stumbling on trial, pension increases

It's time for an alarming update on two issues that pose big potential problems for the Liberals, the MLAs' pay raise and the Basi-Virk corruption trial.
First, the trial, and the misadventures of Attorney General Wally Oppal.
Since the start of the trial of Bob Virk and Dave Basi on corruption charges in connection with the B.C. Rail deal, the government has had a political staffer as a full-time monitor on the courtroom. Taxpayers have been picking up the cost.
There's nothing wrong with that. The trial has seen allegations of government misconduct. It's reasonable that the government would want to have a firsthand report, even though ministers have refused to answer all questions about political dirty tricks and other issues raised in court.
This week the NDP decided to ask what the public affairs bureau staffer, Stuart Chase, was doing.
Oppal's responses were contradictory and, it turns out, wildly misleading.
"He merely reports to the government and other people regarding what's going on in courtrooms," said Oppal. "He assists the media, and he assists people."
As the NDP kept asking, the answers kept shifting. When the opposition asked Oppal to make the reports from the courtroom public, he said maybe there were no reports from Chase.
And then he said Chase was there to help reports and curious members of the public who wander into the courtroom.
"It assists if we have somebody there explaining how the system works to the public," he said.
Except that was all rubbish. Victoria Times Colonist political columnist Les Leyne called Chase to ask what he was doing in the courtroom.
And Chase flatly contradicted Oppal. He sends reports to Victoria on the trial twice a day. He never briefs reporters or talk to the public.
Maybe Oppal doesn't know what's going on. But that still doesn't explain why he provided inaccurate answers.
And it still leaves the question. If Chase - whose salary is paid by taxpayers - is preparing reports, why aren't they being made public? And if they're really just for the Liberals, why isn't the party?
The news for the government isn't much better on the bid to raise MLAs' pay by 30 per cent and introduce a much richer pension plan.
Premier Gordon Campbell - in line for a 50-per-cent pay increase - has justified the increases by pointing to the report from the three-person panel appointed to look at the compensation issue.
The pension proposals have got a rough ride from critics on the right and left. MLAs have a pension plan now. Taxpayers contribute the equivalent of nine per cent of their salaries - about $6,900 - to an RRSP. MLAs can match the contribution. A two-term MLA who does can expect to leave office with about $160,000 set aside for his eventual retirement.
The proposed new plan is far more generous. Taxpayers would be on the hook for about $35,000 per MLA per year.
The panel's report noted in one sentence that the three members could not agree on the pension plan. But journalist Sean Holman revealed in that the problems with the proposal go beyond a mild disagreement.
University of British Columbia business professor Sandra Robinson revealed the panel had agreed on recommendations that included a pension plan that would have cost taxpayers about 40-per-cent less.
After she left for Europe, the other two panelists -- both senior lawyers -- rewrote the report to propose the more generous pension recommendations.
It's a serious breakdown in the process. The panel was already unrepresentative. The three members likely have an average income of more than $200,000. Their perceptions of reasonable wages and benefits will differ from someone earning the average B.C. salary of just under $40,000.
The wise course for the premier would be to send the whole issue back to a new, more representative panel.
But instead, he's going to press on.
Footnote: The NDP spent another day grilling Oppal Tuesday, after a defence lawyer in the Basi-Virk trial alleged that Liberal Party executive director Kelly Reichert had urged the RCMP not to lay charges against Basi in connection with political dirty tricks because it would be embarrassing for the Liberals. Oppal refused to answer the questions because the case is before the courts. For details on the allegations, see .
For more see Bill Tieleman's report.