04/09/2014 12:27 EDT | Updated 06/09/2014 05:59 EDT

Nova Scotia politicians need two years instead of five for pension eligibility

HALIFAX - Nova Scotia politicians will be required to serve two years instead of five to become eligible for a pension under binding recommendations from a panel that examined how legislature members are compensated.

The three-member panel delivered a report Wednesday saying the change was made to align pension plans for politicians with those for civil servants.

Roy Salmon, a former Nova Scotia auditor general who served on the panel, said the change doesn't mean politicians will be eligible to collect a pension after two years unless that's all they serve.

Salmon said on average, a politician serves between seven to eight years and isn't eligible to collect until 55 years of age.

"So if you want look at a pension for a member who serves two years and at 55 gets a pension, he gets seven per cent of his salary," he said.

The members' pension plan will remain as it exists, where pension benefits are 3 1/2 per cent of one's salary for every year of service. Salmon said the panel examined pension revisions in New Brunswick and Alberta as well as recommendations from a previous panel in Nova Scotia in 2011, but it concluded no changes were needed.

"We concluded that taking it any lower ... would be totally inappropriate and unfair," Salmon said.

But politicians will be required to combine their pensions with the Canada Pension Plan when they turn 65. Salmon said that will result in savings because it eliminates the practice of so-called stacking, where politicians see the full benefits of both pensions.

In his case, Salmon said that measure would cost him about $10,000 in pension benefits annually.

Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said he was dissatisfied with the changes and wants the pension plan scrapped altogether.

"We aren't done here until the pay and pensions of MLAs match what Nova Scotians can afford and what they themselves can hope to earn in their own jobs," said Baillie. "We are no further ahead."

But Premier Stephen McNeil said he agrees with the panel's conclusions.

"The panel has made the recommendation and we will implement the changes that they have brought forward."

Another change will require members seeking to collect a monthly accommodation allowance of $1,499 to live a minimum of 100 kilometres from the legislature instead of 40 kilometres.

Housing allowances became an issue last year after the province's auditor general said the 40-kilometre limit should be increased, calling it outdated.

Panel member Janet Hazelton, president of the Nova Scotia Nurses' Union, said the change was reasonable given that 40 kilometres is not a great distance to travel for most people who commute regularly.

The panel did not recommend any changes to member salaries, which stand at $89,234 per year, nor to top-ups given to party leaders and the premier.

Salmon said the pay was fair given that Nova Scotia ranks around the middle of the pack nationally.

Members will be allowed to claim expenses for an overnight hotel stay in Halifax due to inclement weather, the time of day or other reasons after a house sitting, as long as there is written approval with the rationale for the authorization from a party leader.

The changes called for by the panel are binding because of legislation passed last fall that said the recommendations will be law. They are retroactive to Nov. 1, 2013 with the exception of the pension changes which will take effect on the date of the next election.