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MLAs to bare travel expenses - minus receipts

Oct 21 2012

Curious taxpayers will get their first look at new MLA expenses this month, but they won't be able to pore through itemized receipts as promised.

Politicians decided last week to release their quarterly travel expenses, starting at the end of the month. That's to be followed by a breakdown of constituency office expenses on Jan. 1, 2013, including administration, communications, staff travel, rent, insurance, furniture and photocopy fees.

The sudden burst of transparency is in response to what critics called a "public spanking" by auditor general John Doyle, who released a report in July that heavily criticized lax bookkeeping at the B.C. legislature.

Speaker Bill Barisoff quickly promised financial reforms and more public information on MLA expenses, including a website where the public could see scanned receipts for individual purchases.

Yet the promise of receipts was nowhere to be found in the disclosure forms unveiled by MLAs at the legislature's management committee on Wednesday.

The lack of detail means the public isn't able to break down the top-level totals to see if individual purchases are appropriate. That level of scrutiny has proven controversial for politicians such as federal cabinet minister Bev Oda, who took considerable criticism from the public when it was revealed she purchased a $16 glass of orange juice.

"That's not good enough by half," said Jordan Bateman, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

"The quarterly total is useless. Anything can be categorized as anything. You have no idea if what's being categorized as an office expense may actually be $16 orange juice."

The politicians are "shooting themselves in the feet again" by not providing data that's actually useful to hold them accountable for their purchases, Bateman said.

The travel expenses, for example, will provide quarterly totals for in-province travel, constituency travel, the capital city living allowance in Greater Victoria and pre-approved trips. But those total figures won't let taxpayers see if an MLA took, for example, one trip in first class or 10 trips in economy class.

NDP house leader John Horgan said if the public wants to see more detail, then it will have to express that wish to MLAs.

"We have to start somewhere," he said. "I think it's a healthy starting point, global numbers. And then if there's a requirement to burrow down, that will unfold over time."

Liberal house leader Mike de Jong, who has pushed for MLA expense disclosure, said it's still his intention to move toward scanned receipts in the future.

De Jong already posts his own expense figures on his website and is moving toward releasing his own scanned receipts.

"I think it's a logical part of this," de Jong said of the receipts. "But what I've learned is we've got to get to first base first."

rshaw@timescolonist.com

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