NEWS

Ontario's Sunshine List: Is it still useful?

03/28/2015 05:00 EDT | Updated 05/27/2015 05:59 EDT
The latest list of Ontario public sector workers who made at least $100,000 last year is out and it's longer than ever – six volumes of names with six-figure (and in a few cases, seven-figure) numbers attached to each one of them.

More than 111,000 public-sector workers in the province made at least $100,000 in 2014. That's an increase of more than 13,600 from the previous year's list.

The so-called Sunshine List was created by Ontario's Public Sector Disclosure Act, which was passed back in 1996 by the Progressive Conservative government of Mike Harris. It was meant to serve as a check on payroll spending, with the Harris government often pointing to the list as justification for spending cutbacks they were proposing.

In that first edition 19 years ago, 4,576 names appeared. Every year since, those numbers have risen by double-digit percentage rates as more and more public servants crossed the $100,000 threshold.  

Critics say it's time the list was changed. For one thing, they say, the $100,000 threshold has never been adjusted to take inflation into account. If that had been done back in 1996, the threshold this year would have been about $142,000.

Where $100,000 was considered a significant dividing point back in 1996, it's now low enough to capture large numbers of public employees, including hydro workers, nurses, teachers, transit workers, firefighters and police.   

'Public shaming?' 

Mike McCormack, who heads the Toronto Police Association, counts himself as one who wants to see the threshold raised. The latest figures show that over half of the city's police force made the list, thanks to overtime, premium pay and paid duty.

"The cost of living has changed in the last decades and so must the Sunshine List," McCormack wrote in a recent guest column. "We feel this list, which may have had value 20 years ago, is no longer relevant and unfairly targets our members."

He has other problems with the Sunshine List that are particular to his association. This year, for the first time, paid duty income is included – income from working on a day off escorting funerals or guarding movie sets. This income, while paid to officers through the Toronto Police Service, does not come from taxpayers.

The bottom line, according to McCormack, is that the list as it stands amounts to a "public shaming" that "needlessly fuels public resentment."

The president of the Ontario Public Service Employees Union, which represents 130,000 public sector workers, told CBC News last year that short of scrapping the list altogether, he, too, would like to see the threshold raised to reflect inflation. But Warren Thomas said he doubted it would ever happen. "It’s such a political hot potato."

It turns out that Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne mused about raising the threshold back in 2013, but never did.  That may not be too surprising as it can be politically useful for a province that says it’s in deficit-fighting mode. Ontario is likely to face tough public-sector wage battles on several fronts in the next year. News that more than 100,000 public servants – about one in 10 – earned more than $100,000 last year tends not to play well publicly when unions come asking for pay hikes. It also didn't hurt Ontario's position that a recent Fraser Institute study found that government workers in Ontario at all levels were paid, on average, 11.5 per cent more  than comparable workers in the private sector. 

Is it a problem that the Sunshine List tends to end up as a political football? Christine Van Geyn doesn’t think so. As Ontario director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, she sees real value in keeping the list public and keeping the threshold at $100,000.

"I don’t think they should raise the limit," she tells CBC News.  "When you consider that the average household salary is $73,000, $100,000 for one person is still a lot of money."

She has no problem with the political ramifications of such disclosure. "The only thing that keeps public sector salaries in check is politics," Van Geyn says.

Politicians always say they're in favour of transparency and accountability. But there’s also the question of whether salary disclosure itself leads to higher salaries. Some economiststhinkthat’s quite likely. How many Crown lawyers or university professors are using their colleagues’ salaries as evidence to argue for higher pay for themselves?

A U.S. study showed that salary disclosures of top city managers in financially-pressed California led to salary compression at the upper echelon of employees – pay levels for well-paid city managers fell by eight per cent after their salaries were publicly disclosed.   

It should be noted that Sunshine Lists also exist in several other provinces besides Ontario. In Alberta and British Columbia, the lists require disclosure of those earning more than $100,000. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the lists include those with total compensation above $50,000.

Such broad salary disclosure lists do not exist federally.

MORE:cbcNews