P.E.I. MLAs have expense funds not open to public scrutiny

Teresa Wright twright@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on January 5, 2016

Coles Building

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 backbencher’s 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.

RELATED: P.E.I. MLA expenses now available to view online

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.

“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.”

Last year, Premier Wade MacLauchlan extended disclosures currently required for cabinet ministers’ expenses to include deputy ministers, CEOs and senior advisors within government.

twright@theguardian.pe.ca

Twitter.com/GuardianTeresa