Watchdog: Taxpayers federation wants to keep better tabs on Atlantic issues

FREDERICTON – The “gold-plated” pensions and generous pay perks of New Brunswick MLAs have a national government watchdog looking to establish a regional office in the Maritimes.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation, a citizen’s group dedicated to lower taxes and less government waste, has mailed letters to homes across Atlantic Canada asking for donations to set up shop in Halifax.

“We’ve always had people asking when we’re going to open up an office in Atlantic Canada,” said Scott Hennig, the group’s Edmonton-based national communications manager. “We’ve been waiting for the right time and there have been a few fairly high-profile issues across the region that have indicated we should be on the ground there.”

The government watchdog group is regularly quoted in media reports on government spending and tax issues.

In addition to the lucrative pension plans and “re-establishment allowances” of New Brunswick MLAs, the group has kept a close eye on Nova Scotia’s MLA expense scandal and the province’s HST increase.

“These issues are right up our alley,” Hennig said. “But we’re only reacting in Atlantic Canada right now because we don’t have anyone on the ground being proactive and encouraging action on local and provincial issues.”

Roughly 4,000 fundraising letters were sent out in Nova Scotia and about a 1,000 in total went to New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland and Labrador.

Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said he’s “ecstatic” the taxpayers’ federation is eyeing a Halifax office.

“As an individual citizen I’ve been telling them they need to be on the ground here as long as they’ve existed,” he said. “But they’re a little slow off the mark if they’re responding to the expense scandal or tax increases here. Where were they three or four months ago?”

From the perspective of AIMS, an independent economic and social policy think tank, Cirtwill said that although they often hold similar positions on some issues they are quite different organizations.

“AIMS isn’t a lobby organization they way they are,” he said. “They are committed to lower taxes regardless of the cost on the other side. We’re much more interested in what the evidence tells us about the appropriate level of taxation.”

Cirtwill said the watchdog group will be another voice on issues such as MLA pensions.

“Pensions are a perfect example of something they could weigh in on,” he said. “The idea that you can have gold-plated pensions for politicians and bureaucrats while most of us don’t in fact even have a pension at all is a little bit rich.”

In 2008, New Brunswick MLAs voted unanimously to boost their pay and benefits packages. The changes increased the maximum payment under the severance allowance to $42,500, or six months pay.

As well, the allowance was made available to everyone, including those members who receive pensions and those who are leaving for lucrative new positions in places such as the Senate.

At the time, MLAs voted to increase their salaries from $45,347 to $85,000, while ending two allowances used to supplement their incomes that were valued at about $35,000. Since the re-establishment allowances are based on salary, those were raised as well.

Pensions rose to $30,000 a year after eight years in the house, up from $16,500. They jumped to $76,000 annually after 20 years as a MLA, up from $41,000. The increases elevated the New Brunswick packages to among the richest in Canada.

In Nova Scotia, the sales tax increased two percentage points on July 1, despite an election pledge by Premier Darrell Dexter that the NDP would not raise taxes.

The Nova Scotia expense scandal revealed that several politicians had billed the province for questionable and pricey expenses, such as an $8,000 generator for one MLA’s personal residence.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation hopes to have a regional office for Atlantic Canada open within a matter of months.