Back­bench slush fund

The Guardian un­cov­ers de­tails of money ex­pensed by back­bench and Op­po­si­tion MLAs from a fund un­seen by the pub­lic un­til now

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - FRONT PAGE - BY TERESA WRIGHT

Ex­penses filed by Lib­eral back­bench and Op­po­si­tion Tory MLAs in P.E.I. have long re­mained pri­vate, but new de­tails have emerged about a slush fund avail­able to non-cab­i­net MLAs, al­low­ing them $200 to $300 per month for ex­penses on top of their salaries.

De­tails of any spend­ing by non-cab­i­net politi­cians are not avail­able for the pub­lic to scru­ti­nize, nor are they ac­ces­si­ble through ac­cess to in­for­ma­tion leg­is­la­tion.

That’s be­cause the Op­po­si­tion and gov­ern­ment pri­vate mem­bers’ bud­gets are man­aged through the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly of P.E.I. — and records from all three of­fices are ex­empt from release un­der the Free­dom of In­for­ma­tion and Pro­tec­tion of Pri­vacy Act.

But a Guardian in­ves­ti­ga­tion has learned how the Lib­eral back­benchers of­fice and the Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive Op­po­si­tion have been man­ag­ing their funds.

Each of­fice is pro­vided with an op­er­at­ing grant and a sep­a­rate salary ac­count to al­low each of­fice to ef­fec­tively carry out its du­ties.

The money comes from the bud­get of the leg­isla­tive as­sem­bly of P.E.I. This year, the gov­ern­ment and Op­po­si­tion of­fices were each given $120,400 in op­er­at­ing grants, not in­clud­ing salaries for ad­min­is­tra­tive and re­search staff.

It is th­ese op­er­at­ing grants that pro­vide MLAs with re­im­burse­ments for a wide va­ri­ety of ex­penses.

Re­tired Lib­eral MLA Ron MacKin­ley, who served 29 and a half years in of­fice, says he once called this a “slush fund.”

“I used to call it the slush fund, and they’d get mad at me,” he said.

Back when he was on the back­bench and in Op­po­si­tion, this money would be used to pay for din­ners for cau­cus dur­ing meet­ings, but MacKin­ley says he could not re­call other ex­penses.

Cur­rently in the Op­po­si­tion Pro­gres­sive Con­ser­va­tive of­fice, MLAs can ex­penses a max­i­mum of $200 a month on top of their salaries.

Base salary for a P.E.I. MLA will rise to $70,095 April 1.

Re­ceipts are not re­quired for mileage, but MLAs are re­quired to pro­vide their travel de­tails. Re­ceipts are re­quired for other ex­penses claimed, in­clud­ing for do­na­tions or tick­ets pur­chased to sup­port lo­cal char­i­ties or ben­e­fits, says Op­po­si­tion Leader Jamie Fox.

He de­nied any sug­ges­tion this fund has been used to re­im­burse MLAs for po­lit­i­cal work or fundrais­ers.

“There are a lot, whether it’s tick­ets for fundrais­ing events, 50/50 draw tick­ets or meals, fundrais­ers for churches or things like that… but that comes out of my own pocket. I don’t feel it’s ap­pro­pri­ate for tax­pay­ers to be do­ing that.”

Green Party Leader Peter Be­van-Baker

“If they’re asked to go and sup­port the Boys and Girls Club or the QEH or the IWK and they have to buy tick­ets for that for gov­ern­ment busi­ness, then, yes, they can ex­pense that be­cause it is gov­ern­ment-re­lated,” Fox said.

“But if it’s party-re­lated, they can­not ex­pense it.”

Down­stairs in the Lib­eral back­benchers of­fice, MLAs have ac­cess to up to $300 a month for ex­penses on top of their salaries. That amount has in­creased, up from $200 un­der the Ghiz ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Re­ceipts are not re­quired for ex­penses claimed in the gov­ern­ment mem­bers’ of­fice, an in­side source told The Guardian on an agree­ment of anonymity.

Mileage for con­stituency work and fundrais­ing tick­ets are ex­pensed by gov­ern­ment back­bench MLAs, but The Guardian’s source also de­nied any po­lit­i­cal ac­tiv­i­ties are ex­pensed.

The Guardian spoke with a num­ber of cur­rent and for­mer mem­bers of all gov­ern­ment of­fices, and ev­ery one of them said politi­cians, re­gard­less of party or po­si­tion, are hit up for do­na­tions vir­tu­ally every­where they go.

But not ev­ery­one agrees tax­pay­ers should be on the hook for this spend­ing.

“I pay for that out of my own pocket,” says Green Leader Peter Be­van-Baker.

“There are a lot, whether it’s tick­ets for fundrais­ing events, 50/50 draw tick­ets or meals, fundrais­ers for churches or things like that … but that comes out of my own pocket. I don’t feel it’s ap­pro­pri­ate for tax­pay­ers to be do­ing that.”

And when it comes to dis­clo­sure, Be­van-Baker has upped the ante.

He has cre­ated a blog and is post­ing ev­ery penny spent from his of­fice’s op­er­at­ing grant of $20,000, listing ev­ery­thing from bank fees to postage stamps.

He says he did this out of a sense of ac­count­abil­ity to P.E.I. tax­pay­ers.

“The bot­tom line is, it’s tax­pay­ers’ money, it’s not our money and we felt Is­land tax­pay­ers de­served to know what we were spend­ing their money on in or­der to sup­port our ac­tiv­i­ties.”

Kevin Lacey, At­lantic Canada di­rec­tor for the Cana­dian Tax­pay­ers Fed­er­a­tion, says all money ex­pensed by politi­cians should be dis­closed to the pub­lic.

“Politi­cians are stew­ards of our money and, as a re­sult, they have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to dis­close all of their ex­penses to the pub­lic who is pay­ing for them,” Lacey said.

“It’s an is­sue of lead­er­ship. Politi­cians should set the ex­am­ple for ac­count­abil­ity in gov­ern­ment, and they’re not when they’re re­fus­ing to dis­close all of their ex­penses.”

Fox says as of Jan. 1, Op­po­si­tion MLAs will only be re­im­bursed for “le­git­i­mate of­fice ex­penses,” sub­ject to ap­proval by the leader, but seemed to backpedal from a pre­vi­ous state­ment to The Guardian in De­cem­ber say­ing he would vol­un­tar­ily release a full ac­count­ing of all Tory MLA ex­penses.

“We’re go­ing to release our year-end state­ment of our bud­get to the Speaker’s of­fice. That’s what I’m re­quired to do.”

No one from gov­ern­ment was made avail­able to speak to The Guardian on the record, but a state­ment sent from gov­ern­ment house leader and Agri­cul­ture and Fish­eries Min­is­ter Alan McIsaac’s of­fice in­di­cated changes to Lib­eral back­bench MLA dis­clo­sures could be com­ing soon.

“Gov­ern­ment cau­cus is com­mit­ted to open­ness and trans­parency, and will be look­ing at post­ing ad­di­tional ex­penses in the new year.”

Ear­lier this year, Premier Wade MacLauch­lan did ex­tended dis­clo­sures cur­rently re­quired for cab­i­net min­is­ters’ ex­penses to in­clude deputy min­is­ters, CEOs and se­nior ad­vis­ers within gov­ern­ment.

Be­van-Baker

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