Tuesday, September 04, 2007

MLAs figure they need four times as much for housing as the disabled

Everyone knows about MLAs’ big raises and their extraordinary pension plan improvements.
But only Times Colonist columnist Les Leyne, as far as I know, has taken a look at some of the other big benefit increases in the works.
One leaps out. The three-person panel that reviewed politicians’ pay— the panellists were paid $50,000 each for three months of part-time work — also looked at the extra money MLAs get for living expenses when they have to be in Victoria.
Too low, said the panel. MLAs can now claim $150 for days they’re in Victoria on business (if they’re from here, they get $51.50 for food and incidentals). Health Minister George Abbott, who needs to spend a lot of time here or in Vancouver, claimed $19,000 last year.
The current allowance isn’t rich, but it covers a hotel room at government rates and reasonable meal expenses. Anyone who spent a lot of time in Victoria would be able to rent an apartment with that much money.
But the panel said that was too mingy. It recommended, without any explanation, that all MLAs get paid $61 a day for 75 sitting days. If the legislature goes longer, they would get more. If it sat for fewer days, they wouldn’t pay anything back. (The legislature sat for 46 days in 2006.)
And the panel recommended a housing allowance of up to $19,000 a year for MLAs who live outside the capital region and decide to rent an apartment or buy a second home.
That’s $1,583 a month for housing. Not a principal residence, but a place one person — maybe two — would use some of the time.
It’s a big jump. And I can’t help but think about the contrast between what MLAs believe they need to find a place to live and what they think the most vulnerable people in the province need.
A disabled individual — imagine someone with an illness or injury or developmental disability that makes it impossible to work, and no savings or other income — gets $375 for shelter. A couple gets $570.
About 60,000 disabled British Columbians try to live at that level.
You can have an interesting philosophical debate about what the rate should be. It doesn’t seem fair, for example, for people on income assistance to end up able to spend more on accommodation than some of the lower-income taxpayers who help support them.
But the current levels are indefensible. There is no accommodation available for $375 in much of the province. People go homeless or stay with relatives or use the already meagre allowance for food and other basics.
In Esquimalt, four low-rent buildings have just been condemned and all the tenants evicted. Some suites had bare electrical wires, leaky plumbing and roofs. The living conditions were chaotic, with reports of drunkenness and crime.
Rents in the buildings had started at $480 a month. A person on disability benefits couldn’t have afforded even a place in a building that was about to be condemned.
There’s no reason to expect MLAs to live in the same way as those on income assistance. And this not a criticism of MLAs or their dedication to the work. As a group they are extremely diligent and make personal and financial sacrifices with the goal of making their communities and the province better places.
But the gap between the $375 a month they think a disabled person needs for rent and the $1,580 they consider necessary for themselves is huge. It’s hard to see how MLAs can justify leaving others in such hopeless housing circumstances, while improving their own lot so dramatically.
The deal isn’t done yet. The commission’s report proposed MLAs provide receipts to get the housing money. The legislative committee working on the changes is also looking at making the payment a straight $1,000 a month, with no receipts needed.
Either way, the politicians will be treating themselves a lot better than they’re willing to treat the most vulnerable British Columbians.
It caps a sordid period for B.C. politicians. Raises ranging from 30 per cent for MLAs to 50 per cent for the premier; an extraordinary pension plan improvement, and likely soon, a giant jump in living expenses.
Footnote: The changes are being discussed by the legislative assembly management committee, the most secretive of MLAs’ committees. It approves the $50-million budget for the assembly, but doesn’t publish any reports or minutes or plans. Try to find information on the committee on the government website. Current members are Liberals Bill Barisoff, Mike de Jong, John Yap and Randy Hawes and New Democrats Mike Farnworth and Jenny Kwan.