FREDERICTON – Students, patients, and clients of social programs aren’t the only ones who could see the benefit of last week’s provincial budget, as the Liberal government has set aside enough money to offer MLAs and ministers a big raise.

Although MLAs can’t increase until separate legislation is passed through the legislature, Finance Minister Victor Boudreau has included an extra $765,000 for politicians’ salaries in his latest budget over and above what was paid out to MLAs last year.

Boudreau described the budget as “prudent” and resisted public pressure to offer New Brunswickers tax relief at a time when New Brunswickers are still reeling from across the board tax hikes in last year’s budget, the effects of major rate increases from NB Power, and ever-rising property assessments.

While Boudreau warned of tough decisions, few major cuts were made and the Liberal government continued to spend at a rate that will see the province’s debt further balloon.

The $8,632,000 set aside for Members Allowances, Committees and Operations in the budget’s main estimates is actually $1,414,000 more than the $7,218,000 set aside in last year’s budget estimates.

It isn’t known when the Liberal government will introduce a bill to increase MLA and ministers wages.

The province’s Conflict of Interest Commissioner Patrick A.A. Ryan, was mandated by government to conduct the first review of MLA salaries in 20 years, and he recommended across-the-board raises in his final report that was released in January.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation was among the critics of the recommendation, at a time when the province was headed for a major surplus after raising taxes across the board in their previous budget.

If the Liberal government bases the structure of its increases on Ryan’s recommendations, MLAs would see their salaries jump from $81,758 to $85,000, an increase of 3.93 per cent.

Ryan recommended that the Premier of New Brunswick receive a raise of $18,265 over the current salary of $60,735.03 he receives for fulfilling his functions as premier, for a total of $79,000. In addition to the $85,000 base salary the premier would receive as an MLA under Ryan’s recommendations, the premier’s new salary would grow to $164,000 from $142,547.

The premier of New Brunswick’s revised salary would subsequently fall just short of the salaries of the premiers of Nova Scotia ($165,487), Alberta ($166,554), and well above the premiers of Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Government ministers would see an increase of $12,124 over their current salaries of $40,490, and when the resulting total of $52,614 is added to the recommended base MLA salary of $85,000, they would be bringing home $137,614 annually if the Liberal government implements the recommendations.

Still according to Ryan’s recommendations, the leader of the Official Opposition would receive an extra $14,810 over his current salary of $40,490, and when the new recommended salary of $55,300 is added to the base MLA salary of $85,000, the leader of the Official Opposition’s salary would grow to a total of $140, 300 from the current total of $122,248

Ryan also recommended that the speaker of the legislature receive a $22,245 raise over the $30,369 he receives currently, and when the new recommended total of $52,614 is added to the recommended $85,000 base MLA salary, the speaker would be receiving a $137,614 pay cheque annually.

Ryan recommended the abolition of the current non-taxable allowance that MLAs receive, a practice which is on its way out of usage across most Canadian provinces.

Charles Cirtwill, the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the process being used to address MLA salaries leaves much to be desired.

“We have to find a better way of doing it. Having people vote on their own raises is very problematic,” he said.

By making the raises effective only after the province’s next election in 2010, Cirtwill says the Liberal government could offer better predictability to taxpayers and create a more transparent process.

“So that people applying for the job know what the compensation is and they don’t get to vote on it once they are there,” said Cirwtill.

Critics have argued that the government was setting itself up for a wage increase by mandating the review, while government has spoken of the need to attract qualified candidates.

Although the review attracted few submissions from the public, Ryan used the salaries offered to provincial politicians elsewhere and the input of current and former MLAs to determine his recommendations.

Although New Brunswick businesses are struggling to hold on to skilled workers who are attracted by much higher wages in provinces like Alberta and Saskatchewan, the recommendations would bring New Brunswick’s premier and MLAs within less than $3,000 annual salary of their Albertan counterparts.

Also, the recommendations would bring New Brunswick’s premier’s salary of $164,000 up to roughly $20,000 more than Saskatchewan’s leader, and New Brunswick MLAs would reach nearly $10,000 more than Saskatchewan MLAs if their salaries are increased to $85,000 as it has been recommended.