Recent stories about MLA Derek Fildebrandt renting out his taxpayer-subsidized apartment on Airbnb demonstrate, once again, why the rules that govern MLA expenses need to be reviewed and updated.
To begin, let's start with the obvious. How is it that 31 MLAs expensed the maximum last year ($23,160) to live in Edmonton, while many other out-of-town MLAs expensed a far lower amount?
Consider Alberta Party leader Greg Clark. He represents the Calgary riding of Calgary-Elbow, but only expensed $11,780 in 2016-17. United Conservative Party MLA Grant Hunter, who represents a riding that's even further away from Edmonton (Cardston-Taber-Warner), only expensed $11,085 last year. Beyond those two examples there are countless other cases of MLAs expensing well below the maximum.
An MLA expense review could determine how the aforementioned MLAs are able to keep their costs so low and share the details with the MLAs who are currently maxing out their accommodations budgets. Further, the MLA expense review could reduce the maximum accommodations allowance that MLAs are given in the first place; clearly, it's far too generous.
Some will suggest the potential savings that we're talking about is "peanuts" in the grand scheme of Alberta's $55-billion budget. However, the province's $10-billion deficit will never be eliminated unless MLAs lead by example and send a strong signal to the bureaucracy that they're serious about reducing spending.
The problem is that there are far too many examples of allowable expenses that are beyond reasonable.
Next, it's been well known for decades in political circles that out-of-town MLAs would often take their monthly taxpayer-provided accommodations allowance and use it to pay the mortgage on a home or condo they purchased themselves.
Thus, when they left provincial politics, they could then sell the home or condo and pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars. An expense review could seek input from the public on what they think about this practice and put forward potential remedies.
Beyond accommodations expenses, however, the MLA expense rules for vehicle costs are also far too generous.
For most workers, if you have to use your personal vehicle for work purposes, an employer will provide a reimbursement of, say, 35 cents per kilometre. The amount not only covers off the cost of gasoline, but also the fact that your vehicle will sustain wear and tear along the way.
MLAs on the other hand receive a reimbursement of 43.5 cents per kilometre they travel for the use of their automobile, plus they can hand in their actual gas receipts for reimbursement as well — double dipping for the same trip. In addition to this, MLAs can expense their oil change bills and receipts for having their vehicles cleaned.
For instance, back in 2013, two former MLAs spent $250 each to get their cars cleaned and detailed. If their jobs were akin to tax drivers, one could understand such an expense, but MLAs are anything but chauffeurs.
Make no mistake, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is not suggesting that all MLAs are abusing their expense accounts. Nor are we suggesting MLAs not be allowed to expense reasonable bills that are related their work as MLAs. The problem is that there are far too many examples of allowable expenses that are beyond reasonable.
Here we are again, five years later, talking about the same problems.
Arguably what's most disappointing about the aforementioned problems discussed in this column is that the Canadian Taxpayers Federation identified some of these issues in a report we provided to the legislature back in 2012.
At the time, the legislature was reviewing MLAs compensation, but it ultimately failed to address the issues we identified with expenses. As a result, here we are again, five years later, talking about the same problems.
If MLAs don't like stories that question the ethics of their expenses, then perhaps it's time they finally do something about the problem.
Colin Craig is the Interim Alberta Director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation
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