EDMONTON - With Alberta facing a $6 billion shortfall in next month's budget, Premier Alison Redford's government has passed a motion to refuse a mandated cost-of-living pay hike for all 87 members of the legislature.
Redford described it as leadership by example in tough economic times while her critics labelled it a cheap, cynical bargaining ploy.
"We're in some difficult times and we want to make sure that we're doing everything possible to set the right tone," Redford told reporters Thursday morning, two hours before her Progressive Conservative members on an all-party pay committee used their majority to pass the pay freeze.
She said the idea came from the members of her caucus who sit on the member services committee.
"I'm glad it was government MLAs that continue to lead by example," she said.
The cost-of-living hike was to kick in April 1 for all MLAs, but has now been frozen for a year.
NDP Leader Brian Mason, a member of the committee, voted against the decision.
Mason said it's not because he is against the freeze, but because the true intent of the motion was to give Redford's government a patina of moral high ground in contract talks with teachers, doctors and other public sector workers.
The ongoing talks with doctors have been particularly acrimonious, with Redford saying Alberta doctors are already the highest paid in Canada and that a boost in doctors' pay may force her government to penalize families by bringing back health premiums.
"They're going to force all provincial employees, all nurses, all teachers, everybody that works in some way in the public sector to take a wage freeze or possibly wage rollbacks," said Mason.
"It's unnecessary. It's unfair."
Mason noted Redford's government has left itself very little budget wiggle room except to cut because of its refusal to hike royalties or bring back tax cuts to wealthy earners instituted under former premier Ralph Klein.
The member services committee was told the cost-of-living freeze would amount to less than two per cent of a member's salary and would save the province $200,000 overall on a budget of $41 billion.
The average member of the legislature makes a base salary of $156,311, which includes $22,000 for RRSP payments in lieu of pension or transition payouts. Cabinet ministers and party leaders make more. It ranks as one of the highest salary grids in Canada.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and caucus member Heather Forsyth voted with the PCs to freeze the cost-of-living payout.
However, Smith's motion to extend the freeze past one year was voted down by the Tories on the grounds that things can change quickly and that it's best to move one year at a time.
After the vote, Smith told reporters the pay freeze is still too little, too late given that Redford's party, through its majority on the member services committee, voted last November to hike the taxpayer-funded RRSP portion on MLA remuneration to effectively deliver an eight per cent pay hike.
"Eight per cent is higher than any other public sector union has on the table for an increase this year," said Smith.
"This is why the premier has no credibility in dealing with doctors, teachers or any frontline workers."
The eight per cent hike has become a long-running spin war between the Tories and the Wildrose. Redford and her party have stated that the pay change in November represents, in fact, an eight per cent cut from the pay grid in place before the April 2012 election.
Redford also said Thursday that the cost-of-living freeze is not a shot across the bow at doctors or teachers.
"(It's aimed) not at anyone in particular," she said. "We're continuing with, I think, really productive negotiations with doctors and teachers."
Opposition Liberal Leader Raj Sherman walked out of the committee during the freeze discussion, continuing a pattern of behaviour that began when pay was discussed last fall.
Sherman said later he doesn't believe in the principle that politicians should set their own pay and that it should be done by an independent body.
He said, if anything, the freeze doesn't go far enough.
"With the performance of the government they should probably get a 10 per cent cut in pay," said Sherman.
"The government is asking the citizens to do more with less when the government has mismanaged the public purse."
The pay freeze motion was led in the committee by whip Steve Young and agreed to by backbenchers Dave Quest, Hec Goudreau, Mary Anne Jablonski and David Dorward.
The committee is also researching changes to member housing and travel allowances.