FREDERICTON – As a government-mandated commissioner recommends across-the-board pay increases for MLAs and ministers, many New Brunswickers may be wondering what constitutes a fair wage for those who represent them in the provincial legislature?

While the subject of politicians wages have long been fodder for coffee-shop chatter, the question appears to have garnered less “official” interest as New Brunswick’s conflict of interest commissioner, Patrick A.A. Ryan performed the first review of MLA salaries in 20 years.

Ryan’s widespread calls for consultation drew only five responses from the public, besides the current and former MLAs he consulted.

“I suspect that the main reason for a lack of direct response is the belief that the electorate has that their legislators are entitled to fairness in compensation and benefits, and that such important issues will be adjusted in line with similar positions in comparative provinces,” wrote Ryan in his report released Thursday.

John Williamson, federal director of the Canadian Taxpayers federation believes that even a comparison with other provinces shows New Brunswick legislators would be smiling if the Liberal government follows through on Ryan’s recommendations.

“That is quite a generous salary when you compare it to Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, P.E.I and Newfoundland,” he said.”If you see, for example, salaries in Alberta, or just the amount Alberta MLAs receive, that is a just little bit higher. That might speak to the political culture there, one of restraint,” despite the generally higher wages paid in Alberta industry.

Considering the average New Brunswick salary was $28,302 per cent in 2006, which represents 84.9 per cent of Canada’s average of $33,345, some may wonder just how closely the salaries of politicians in other provinces can serve as the guide posts for deciding what New Brunswick’s elected officials are paid.

Although New Brunswick businesses are fighting to hold on to skilled workers who are attracted by much higher wages in places 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.

Charles Cirtwill, acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says the nature of MLA compensation reviews that are struck in provinces with below average wages are almost guaranteed to result in pay increases as MLAs find themselves trying to “keep up with the Joneses.”

“As long as the assessment’s going to be ‘what is the national average versus what is your job compared to what the job of an MLA is in Alberta?’ you are always going to have these recommendations,” he said.

“The simple fact is when a hospital is negotiating a salary for nurses they aren’t paying the salary that nurses in Alberta are making, they are paying the salary that’s nationally competitive based on the adjustment factors and what is going to attract people to do that job here versus there.”

Still, when seeking a proper wage for provincial politicians one must consider that New Brunswick members of parliament currently receive $150,800 per year, and a minister receives $226,200.

Opposition leader Jeannot Volpé, who says he will let the majority Liberal government decide the delicate political question, doesn’t think it makes sense for New Brunswick’s premier to be paid less than a backbench MP.

“Nobody will ever convince me that an MP will have the charge on his shoulders that a premier would have,” he said.

“All I’m saying is you can’t compare the workload of a premier with what (NDP Acadie-Bathurst MP) Yvon Godin is doing. All he has to do is criticize E.I. (employment insurance).”

Indeed, raising the salaries of MLAs and ministers may be a sensitive political issue in a province that has been reeling from across-the-board tax hikes included in the Liberal government’s first budget.

And with NB Power’s application for a 6.4 per cent rate increase still making its way through the gears of the provincial regulator at a time when southeast New Brunswick taxpayers are bracing for another year of skyrocketing property assessments, voters may be wondering where their money is being spent.

And a pay hike may shed a negative light on the province’s projected $78.9 million surplus.

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 base salary the premier receives as an MLA, which Ryan recommended be boosted from $81,758 to $85,000, the premier’s new salary would grow to $164,000 from $142,547 if the report’s recommendations are accepted.

The premier of New Brunswick’s revised salary would 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.

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 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.

MLAs would see their salaries jump from $81,758 to $85,000, an increase of 3.93 per cent.

Ryan recommended the abolition of the current non-taxable allowance that MLAs receive, a practice which has ended in the House of Commons and in every other province besides Saskatchewan, Alberta and Quebec.

“The practice should be brought to an abrupt end. It is unpopular with the public, obscures the true value of payment, and is out-of-step with most provinces and payments to members of the House of Commons.”

A non-taxable allowance is considered part of an MLA’s salary, but is exempt from federal and provincial income taxes.

Converted to a taxable amount, the non-taxable allowance of $22,534.44 paid to New Brunswick MLAs equals $36,438.19, which plays into the real value of their current salary of $81,758.

“I think the recommendation to eliminate the tax free portion is a good one, it should be accepted, but let’s not cry for any of these MLAs and suspect they are being underpaid,” reiterates John Williamson of the Canadian Taxpayer Federation.