A three-year shopping spree with taxpayer money has put spending by Nova Scotia’s MLAs under the microscope. And it’s no wonder, says the president of an Atlantic policy think-tank.

“It’s not so much that these folks broke the law, because the law wasn’t clear,” said Charles Cirtwill, president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies.

“It’s that . . . the propriety of these kinds of things get ques_tioned now because all of these transactions happened under rules that were very vague (and) they happened behind closed doors,” he said. “Even if every one of these ex_penses is totally justified, it’s just undermined people’s confidence yet again in government.”

The internal economy board sets the rules for most MLA ex_penses. But these rules are terri_ble,” Mr. Cirtwill said.

MLAs aren’t required to sub_mit receipts for their discretion_ary spending and the financial in_formation is not readily available to the public.

The group also meets behind closed doors, but since it’s an all_party board, it’s not like one of them did this and the other two didn’t know it was going on.”

Rules for discretionary expens_es were tightened and base MLA salaries also increased back in the era of the John Buchanan gov_ernment, Mr. Cirtwill said. Through the years, instead of publicly increasing salaries, the rules surrounding this spending started to get weakened,” he said, and the board quietly in_creased allowances.

Back in 2005, NDP MLA Graham Steele, now the prov_ince’s finance minister, publicly complained about the lack of ac_countability. He voted against Tory premier John Hamm’s pro_posal to review MLA compensa_tion because it wouldn’t have in_cluded allowances. (An NDP spokeswoman said Thursday that Mr. Steele was not mentioned in the auditor general’s report.) While Mr. Cirtwill praised the government for pulling back on some expenses — the $2,500 tech_nology allowance was eliminated in October, MLAs can no longer keep constituency office furni_ture and equipment, and a $45,000 allowance to departing MLAs is gone  he said more is needed than a further review.

The board should start meeting in public immediately, Mr. Cirt_will said, and the spending rules must be clarified to include full receipting for all allowances.

“It’s not a lot of money if you look at the global size of the bud_get, but . . . my mother always taught me, ‘If you look after the pennies, the dollars will look af_ter themselves,’ ” he said. “Every 50 bucks that they wasted was 50 bucks that could’ve gone to a teacher’s salary, a nurse’s salary.”