It's not too often politicians vote themselves pay cuts.
Last year, Cochrane councillors increased their gross salaries to compensate for changes to tax law that eliminated an exemption that increased councillors' net pay. While the move was justified as ensuring council members didn't lose take-home pay, the general public wasn't as gracious with the optics. Unfortunately, regular taxpayers don't get the luxury of bumping up their gross pay when they are slapped with a tax increase.
This week the Alberta Government voted to decrease MLAs and the premier's salary by five per cent, which should be commended since a government looking at sweeping cuts should look to its own wasteful spending before hitting essential services and public service wages. Elimination of the fuel credit card program for MLAs also ends the ability for elected representatives to claim for fuel, maintenance and car washes. It also brings politician mileage to the same per-kilometre rate as the public service.
Critics, of course, are attacking the cuts as a smokescreen move by the UCP to justify wage cuts to the public sector and say the decrease isn't enough. There is some credence to the latter. Alberta MLAs, not including expenses – of which there are plenty – are still $120,931 and the premier rakes in $186,175. Even with the decrease, our MLAs are paid more than Ontario MPPs who govern a province with 10 million more people.
The UCP object to insinuations from the NDP Opposition that the decrease will be used to justify pay decreases in the public sector, but there also needs to be some consideration of how public employees are paid – especially at the top of the bureaucratic echelon. David Erickson, former president and chief executive officer of the Alberta Electric System Operator, hit the top of the 2019 sunshine list with a total compensation of $925,997.82 for 2018, which represented an increase of more than $75,000 since 2017. That means this position received a raise over a three-year period in excess of the average Alberta wage for 2017 ($59,384).
The NDP made a small step toward curtailing executive salaries when it capped the salaries for university presidents, but there are many more upper-level positions that are earning hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. While we understand the rationale about competing with the private sector, there is also the case to be made that government jobs should be more about services than getting rich, especially when the money is coming from hard-earned tax dollars.
As for frontline workers, those salaries should stay as they are. The UCP and the unions are staring each other down over contract negotiations as the government fights in court to be allowed to stall on the annual reviews until it gets its finances sorted out. While that sounds like a logical idea, the UCP knew contract negotiations were coming before being elected – or it should have – and therefore should have been prepared. Violating a contract and then taking your workers to court is never a good way to set up an effective dialogue.
It's no secret Alberta public service wages are among the highest in the country, which is a result of years of misguidedly (at least by the stated rationale) trying to keep up with oil sector salaries during boom times. However, at this point, punishing nurses, teachers and other frontline staff is only going to hurt Alberta families who rely on those incomes, which, as we stated, though higher than other provinces, are still not windfalls.
That being said, the increases are not sustainable and the unions and the employees are going to have to work with the government to determine how to keep up with the cost of living while not bankrupting the taxpayer.
The only way to do that if everyone bargains in good faith.