POLITICS
03/29/2012 01:52 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

No cash goodbyes: Alberta premier suspends transition payments to politicians

EDMONTON - After getting battered for weeks over gold-plated goodbyes to politicians and pay to committee members who don't meet, Alberta Premier Alison Redford has declared an unconditional surrender.

Redford, at a campaign stop Thursday, said she is suspending a transition allowance that will pay out a total of more than $10 million this year to 25 departing MLAs of all stripes.

She said she couldn't do anything about the current payments, but would take action going forward.

She also announced that her Progressive Conservative caucus mates, who had already been ordered to pay back a portion of the money they earned on a so-called no-work committee, will have to pay back all the cash.

"On the issue of MLA compensation, my government should have acted faster and we should have gone further than we did over the past few weeks," said Redford.

"Growing up I was always taught that the only thing worse than making a mistake was not admitting the fact that you did. I made a mistake on these issues and now I'm fixing them."

Redford also said she will not accept a transition allowance "win, lose or draw" after the election.

The decision is the final fallback for Redford and her team on what has become a dominant doorstep complaint in the campaign for the April 23 provincial election.

The no-pay committee has been a lightning rod of discontent and may have contributed to a major drop in recent polls and an accompanying surge by the Wildrose party.

Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith called the about-face a desperate attempt to turn back the clock.

"It's clear they're in panic mode," said Smith. "They're now making decisions on the basis of a drop in the polls rather than on the basis of what's right.

"That's what happens when you have a government that has been in power for 40 years. They don't know the difference anymore between right and wrong."

The controversy began three weeks ago when the watchdog Canadian Taxpayers Federation delivered a tongue-in-cheek award for egregious waste of taxpayer money to the 21-member all-party standing committee on privileges and elections, standing orders and printing

All members of the no-meet committee are paid $1,000 a month, even though it hasn't held a meeting for more than three years. They were initially paid per meeting, but that was changed to a monthly stipend in 2008.

It was a no-win issue for all parties: give back the money and thereby admit it wasn't deserved or keep it and be criticized for taking cash for nothing.

Liberal and Wildrose party members bit the bullet and paid back thousands within days. The NDP refused, saying MLA Rachel Notley works on so many committees — many for free — that she effectively didn't get paid at all.

The Tories took the same approach as the New Democrats, dismissing the paybacks as a publicity "stunt."

Eventually it became an exercise in throwing hunks of meat to a hungry pack of pursuing wolves.

Redford initially said she would not order a payback but would wait for a broader review of MLA compensation, currently underway, by former Supreme Court justice Jack Major.

Days later, she asked the 15 Tories on the committee to voluntarily pay back the cash.

Last week, with public outrage still growing, she directed caucus to take action. It responded by ordering Tory members to pay the money that had been received in the six months Redford has been premier.

Ray Prins, the Tory backbencher who had been chairman of the committee, quit government in protest.

Redford said Thursday that any Tories who decide to not repay the committee funds "will not will not have a place in our Progressive Conservative caucus."

The transitional payments, which Redford characterized as "overly generous," has been a smoldering issue for years.

The payments, created to help politicians make the transition back to private life, had quietly and rapidly expanded under former premier Ralph Klein, who scrapped a pension plan for legislature members in 1992.

The 25 MLAs who decided to quit politics rather than run this time will receive an estimated total of $10.6 million. Speaker Ken Kowalski alone will get over $1 million and former premier Ed Stelmach will get close to that.

She said if Major's recommendations ultimately conflict with the actions she's taken, she will work things out to the satisfaction of taxpayers.

Alberta politicians are already among the best paid in Canada. The average politician takes in $163,000 a year, while the premier makes over $200,000.