(Nov. 1 update follows below)
By Tom Fletcher with Aaron Orlando
Columbia River–Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald rang up the third highest travel expense total amongst 85 B.C. MLAs according to a newly instituted Legislature disclosure system that went public today.
Macdonald rang up a total of $45,332 in travel and accommodation expenses during a six-month period between April 1 to Sept. 30 this year.
His expenses included $7,955 in a “capital city” allowance for accommodation and per diem in Victoria, $5,790 for “in-constituency” travel and $2,391 in travel costs for an “accompanying person.” The lion’s share of Macdonald’s expenses fall under the “general travel” category, which includes a total but does not itemize exactly what the $29,195 was spent on.
B.C.’s 85 MLAs have begun disclosing their travel expenses, posting total amounts charged on their government-issued credit cards but not the details of where they drove, flew or dined.
The B.C. legislature’s internal finances are being dragged into the 21st century in response to a damning report from Auditor General John Doyle released in July. The audit found that MLA credit card bills were being paid without receipts, and the legislative assembly hadn’t produced financial statements despite a 2007 recommendation from the previous auditor general.
In response, the Legislative Assembly Management Committee, chaired by Speaker and Penticton MLA Bill Barisoff, began holding its meetings in public. Two new financial officers were hired to address what Doyle described as “pervasive deficiencies” in financial accountability of legislature operations.
The management committee authorized the first release Wednesday, showing six months of expenditures for each MLA up to the end of September. The report breaks spending down in categories, including accommodation, daily meal allowance and three categories of travel.
MLAs representing districts farthest from Victoria generally run up the highest expenses. Leading the pack in the first report is Robin Austin, NDP MLA for Skeena, with $53,606 in expenses from April to September.
Austin’s total includes $19,486 in “Speaker approved travel,” including a trip to Colombo, Sri Lanka in September to attend a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association conference. Speakers, deputy speakers and legislative clerks typically attend these conferences, aimed at strengthening parliamentary practices around the world.
Routine expenses include the “capital city allowance,” for which most MLAs who live outside Greater Victoria claim $1,000 a month without receipts. With receipts, out-of-town MLAs can claim up to $19,000 a year for rent, mortgage or hotel accommodation while in Victoria on legislature business.
MLAs are also eligible for $61 a day for meals while in Victoria on legislature business.
MLA expenses are to be posted quarterly from now on at www.leg.bc.ca/mla/remuneration/travel_expenses.htm where the first reports are posted.
Cabinet minister travel expenses are reported separately on the B.C. government’s “open government” website initiated by Premier Christy Clark. They receive similar accommodation and meal payments to other MLAs, but they are paid by their ministries and do not show up on the new disclosures.
UPDATE, Nov. 1, 2 p.m.
In a Nov. 1 interview, MLA Norm Macdonald gave the new travel disclosure system a mixed review. He emphasized that travelling from his home in Golden to Victoria was time- and expense-consuming.
“I think it’s actually hard to follow,” Macdonald said of the disclosure format. “The disclosure’s good. I think it still needs work so that it’s easier to understand because things show up in different places.”
He noted Cabinet ministers’ travel expenses aren’t included on the list, making other MLAs’ expenses seem higher.
Macdonald noted his actual travel costs are more than the report shows – his recent work on the Timber Supply Committee earlier this year wasn’t included in his personal travel expenses, for example. Those travel expenses are billed to a separate committee budget and not disclosed here.
Geography is the main reason his expenses are much higher, he said: “It’s an expensive place to come from. There’s just no getting around it from Golden.”
It’s a three-hour or more drive to whatever airport he uses. Likewise, driving to appointments within the riding often means drives of several hours. “Those are elements that are not likely to change,” he said.
“I love coming through the Rogers Pass – it’s beautiful, but these are not trips that one ends up looking forward to,” Macdonald said of the 10-hour trip to Victoria.
If the geography of an eastern-B.C. riding without many commercial airports is what’s driving up costs, why not itemize your expenses and lay them bare, as independent MLA Bob Simpson from Cariboo North has done? Macdonald said he’d prefer it be done on a collective basis. “Right now, I don’t see one-offing it,” Macdonald said. “The issues would be that not everyone’s doing it. It raises the question, “Why would one do it and not everyone?'”
He anticipated his travel budget would remain at around $90,000 per year, with seasonal variations. “I don’t know how you get around it,” Macdonald said. “I don’t know how one can do it.
“I can assure people there’s no private jets leaving Golden to Victoria,” he added.