Retiring MLAs spend taxpayers’ millions by abusing severance program

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A retired B.C. cabinet minister says a $132,000 severance package program was taken advantage of by most of the 25 MLAs who didn’t return to Victoria after the May 2017 provincial election.

The 15-month allowance, with a taxpayer price tag of $3.3 million, ran out in August – and a taxpayers’ watchdog says it’s time to put an end to the so-called transition program.

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Any MLA not re-elected or defeated at the polls was eligible.

Former BC Liberal energy and mines minister Bill Bennett said Aug. 30 that he told the legislative assembly clerk’s office to stop his payments last fall.

“I took it for four or five months, but I suspect most MLAs took it for the full 15 months,” Bennett said.

The payments are a severance package not available to retiring or fired people in the private sector, Scott Hennig, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s (CTF) vice-president of communications, said Aug. 30.

“It’s outrageous,” Hennig said.

The allowances also offer $9,000 for retraining programs.

“I heard one NDP MLA had applied for money for eight weeks in Mexico to learn Spanish,” Bennett said.

And, said Hennig, MLAs can draw a pension if they move to another legislature or Parliament. If they returned to a legislature, it would stop, he said.

Former Surrey-White Rock MLA Gordon Hogg, 71, who is now an MP, is consequently eligible to draw a estimated $249,607 annually between his estimated $82,607 provincial MLA pension and new federal parliamentary salary of $167,000.

And, that’s without the transition assistance allowance Hogg was eligible for when he stepped aside as an MLA.

At press time, Hogg was on vacation in Spain and unavailable for comment.

However, said Kate Ryan-Lloyd, B.C. legislative assembly deputy clerk and clerk of committees, an MLA pension is considered income.

As a result, she said, it would be topped up to the monthly allowance permissible under the transition program.

“For example, a former member who is receiving $4,146.51 bi-weekly in transitional assistance begins receiving member pension benefits of $3,000 bi-weekly,” Ryan Lloyd said. “This former member’s transitional assistance payments would be reduced by the $3,000 for a revised transitional assistance payment of $1,146.51 bi-weekly.”

Hogg’s eligibility ended when he became MP for South Surrey-White Rock on Dec. 11, 2017.

But he could have netted $61,600 between the elections.

And he’s eligible for a Canadian pension.

However, the numbers are under a shroud of secrecy cast by MLAs themselves.

In 1996, MLAs voted to keep pensions and transitional allowance payments secret under the province’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FOIPPA).

As a result, taxpayers can’t find out who received cash from the transition pot.

Why?

Because the MLA-created FOIPPA does not define the legislature in which elected representatives sit as a public body, Ryan-Lloyd said.

She said current MLA salaries are available on the legislature’s ‘accountability’ website.

Once MLAs leave office, though, forget about finding out how much they’re receiving from the public purse.

“Detailed transitional assistance payments to former members are not included in these reports or in the public accounts,” Ryan-Lloyd said. “Pension benefits, which are administered and paid by the BC Pension Corporation, are also not disclosed.”

The total value of transition payments will be available later this year, Ryan-Lloyd said.

And, said provincial auditor general’s office spokeswoman Colleen Rose, transition allowances aren’t an issue the office has examined.

Hennig said it’s time all that changed.

“The No. 1 recommendation we always make is to make Parliament and the legislatures subject to the law,” he said. “It’s crazy.”

Hennig said politicians who retire, decide not to run again or lose a re-election bid should be treated like private-sector workers who have retired, quit or been fired.

“There’s no justification for transition allowances.” Instead, given that politicians argue that transition assistance is warranted because they are ineligible for employment insurance, they should be able to collect EI, he said.

Hogg and three other MLAs were eligible for membership in the more exclusive club of those with MLA pensions and the transition assistance eligibility.

Bennett is 68 and decided not to run again in 2017 after 16 years in office.

The CTF estimates the outspoken lawyer became eligible for an estimated pension of $83,504 or $1,230,000 by age 80.

“Yes, I get a pension,” Bennett said. “I’ve walked away from a law practice. I would have been a lot better off if I hadn’t gone into politics.”

Former BC NDP cabinet members Sue Hammell, 73, and Maurine Karagianis, 68, are also members of the select club.

With a pension of $87,420, Hammell could have been topped up under the assistance program.

Karagianis, with a pension of $51,520, was also eligible.

The CTF pegs Hammell’s  pension total by age 80 at $750,323 and Karagianis’ at $756,079.

Jenny Kwan, 51, became MP for Vancouver East in 2015 after 19 years as an MLA.

And, she’s not far behind Hogg in double-dipping.

CTF figures put Kwan’s pension at $75,820 annually on top of her $167,000 MP salary, a total of $242,820.

B.C. non-returning MLAs eligible for transition allowance:

  • Suzanne Anton (BC Liberal, Vancouver-Fraserview)
  • Robin Austin (BC NDP, Skeena)
  • Bill Bennett (BC Liberal, East Kootenay)
  • Doug Bing (BC Liberal, Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows)
  • Kathy Corrigan (BC NDP, Burnaby-Deer Lake)
  • Marc Dalton (BC Liberal, Maple Ridge-Mission),
  • Peter Fassbender (BC Liberal, Surrey-Fleetwood)
  • Scott Hamilton (BC Liberal, Delta North)
  • Sue Hamell (BC NDP, Surrey Green Timbers)
  • Gordon Hogg (BC Liberal, Surrey-White Rock)
  • Gary Holman (BC NDP, Saanich North and the Islands)
  • Vicki Huntington (Independent, Delta South)
  • Maurine Karagianis (BC NDP, Esquimalt Royal Roads)
  • Terry Lake (BC Liberal, Kamloops North Thompson)
  • Richard Lee (BC Liberal, Burnaby North)
  • Norm Macdonald (BC NDP, Columbia River-Revelstoke)
  • Don McRae (BC Liberal, Comox Valley)
  • Pat Pimm (Independent, Peace River North)
  • Linda Reimer (BC Liberal, Port Moody-Coquitlam)
  • Bill Routley (BC NDP, Cowichan Valley)
  • Jane Shin (BC NDP, Burnaby-Lougheed)
  • Moira Stilwell (BC Liberal, Vancouver-Langara)
  • Amrik Virk (BC Liberal, Surrey-Tynehead)
  • Jodie Wickens (BC NDP, Coquitlam Burke Mountain)
  • Naomi Yamamoto (BC Liberal, North Vancouver-Lonsdale)