33 MLAs took receipt-free $12,000 housing benefit in last year

B.C. legislature buildings in Victoria need $250 million dollars worth of repairs.

Thirty-three MLAs took advantage of a housing allowance option that lets them take $12,000 annually without any documentation, despite the legislature sitting for just 41 days during that time period.

Listed under “Capital City Allowance – Accommodation” on expense reports, the amounts for April 1, 2013 to March 31, 2014 were released this week.

MLAs can choose to submit documentation for a home they own or rent (up to $19,000), or for hotels (up to $17,000).

But they can also request $12,000 in receipt-free cash ($1,000 a month), and that many do raises the ire of political watchdog advocates.

“It’s incredibly worrisome,” says IntegrityBC executive director Dermod Travis.

“It’s not just the lump sum, it’s the potential in some cases for them to make capital returns if they decide to purchase a second home, such a condominium. They’re getting a benefit while they’re an MLA, and they’re potentially getting a benefit post-political career as well.”

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The number of MLAs taking the full lump sum could have been larger had there not been an election. Twelve MLAs who were either retired or were defeated in the May provincial election claimed exactly $2,000, despite the Legislature not sitting during the time they were in office.

“We don’t like this system,” says Jordan Bateman of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

“We only want to pay for what we have to pay for, we don’t want to write politicians a blank check.”

While the legislature is in the middle of a three-month spring session that wraps in two weeks, overall activity has sharply decreased over the years.

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From 2009 to 2013, BC lagged behind every other province with at least a million people when it came to days sat in the Legislature.

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“The fact that the Legislature sits for so few days a year speaks in a bad way to the quality of legislation. MLAs do not have sufficient time to review legislation, debate legislation and come back and vote on it. Certainly there’s a very good argument to be made that the Legislature should sit for more days in the year and that committees should sit more.”

The amount of expenses taxpayers are on the hook for came under question in this legislative session. In March, Speaker Linda Reid was forced to pay back more than $5,500 she billed the government to fly her husband, business-class, to South Africa with her on a government trip last year.

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Now, the question of housing expenses is being discussed a committee charged Earlier this month, B.C. finance minister Mike de Jong said citizens could soon see itemized expenses for all MLAs.

“I think it is a step that over time will help to rebuild some of the confidence that the public wants to have in how their tax dollars are being spent,” says the finance minister.

“We have seen that erode over the past number of years, and this is a way to rebuild that confidence.”

The restoration of confidence can’t come soon enough for Bateman and Travis.

“This whole system is rooted in 1970s mentality, when travel was harder and more time was spent in Victoria,” said Bateman.

“If spending more time in constituencies and less time in Victoria is the new reality on the ground, and it certainly seems to be, we need to change the expense rules to reflect that.”

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