FREDERICTON – Amid the talk of tough choices in last week’s Liberal budget, Finance Minister Victor Boudreau found almost $800,000 to set aside for topping up MLAs’ salaries and pensions.

The legislative assembly is expected to see a bill introduced in this session that, if approved, will accept recommendations from an independent commission that argued for a restructured and more generous pay package for politicians.

Charles Cirtwill, the acting president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, is questioning whether the current crop of MLAs should be profiting from their votes on the salary increase bill.

“Having people voting on a raise who are then going to receive that raise is a little unseemly,” Cirtwill said.

The legislative assembly’s budget for members’ allowances, committees and operations is being boosted to $8.6 million in 2008-09 up from $7.9 million that was spent in 2007-08. It is not yet known when the legislature will see the bill intended to bump up their salaries and pension hit the order paper, but Cirtwill said it would be more appropriate if the reforms did not take effect until after the 2010 election.

The legislative assembly asked Patrick Ryan, a retired judge and the province’s conflict-of-interest commissioner, to offer an independent analysis of the salary and pension arrangements for the members of the legislative assembly, the first exercise since 1980.

That commission recommended a fixed base salary of $85,000 for all politicians, eliminating the former arrangement that saw a salary of $45,347 and a non-taxable allowance of $22,534.44 that the commission calculated to be worth $36,438.

Ryan recommended that non-taxable portion be scrapped and made taxable. The report indicates the average MLA now receives $81,758, so the pay bump to $85,000 is equivalent to a 3.95 per cent bonus

The premier then saw his salary, including the MLA portion, hit $164,000, followed by the leader of the opposition’s salary of $140,300 and a cabinet minister’s total wage of $137,614.

According to the Ryan report, there are approximately 200 public servants who are paid more than $150,000. And the New Brunswick premier trails nine other provincial and territorial leaders in terms of salary.

In performing his report, the commissioner surveyed current and former MLAs to get an idea of how much they work, an undertaking that painted an interesting picture of the life of a politician.

In the last four years, the legislature has sat for an average of 63.25 days per year, MLAs said they spent 111.8 days per year in Fredericton when the assembly was not in session and they spent 207.5 days in their riding. That alone totals 382.5 days, more than what actually fits into a calendar and it doesn’t include the 10 days per year of vacation the MLAs report taking, although 39 of 54 MLAs admitted those trips were interrupted with work.

There has also been 73.25 committee meetings per year between 2003 and 2007, although not every MLA sits on committees.