The more things change, the more they stay the same.
MLA expenses are under the microscope after it was revealed that Strathmore-Brooks MLA Derek Fildebrandt had been renting out his taxpayer-subsidized Edmonton apartment on Airbnb.
The news sparked outrage from the public. Fildebrandt was later found to have doubled billed on some meal claims, which prompted the provincial government to announce it was ditching the old paper expense claim system in favour of a new electronic one.
St. Albertans may remember another MLA expense controversy in the early 1990s, when MLA Dick Fowler drew a $20,500 subsistence allowance intended to provide accommodation for out-of-town MLAs. When the next election came around in 1993, voters turfed Fowler, who was then a cabinet minister.
These types of controversies are nothing new. Taxpayers grow wary of politicians who take liberties with the public purse. In many cases the transgressions can be quite small compared to billions of dollars that governments spend in the budget, which isn’t always spent wisely. But there’s a principle involved; it’s about doing the right thing when no one is looking.
Fildebrandt has maintained that he did nothing illegal, but in the minds of many, the principle matters more than the letter of the law. Fildebrandt may have just been the first to find a loophole that needs to be closed.
Members of the Legislative Assembly from outside of the capital region may claim up to $23,160 in a fiscal year to own or lease a property in Edmonton, or $193 per night in a hotel while on official business. The money can go toward rent, utilities, parking and upkeep, but the rules state MLAs are only entitled to actual costs incurred. Unfortunately for taxpayers, unlike with meal expenses, Albertans don’t get to see the actual accommodation expenses. That needs to change.
There’s no problem with out-of-town MLAs claiming living expenses while they serve in the legislature, but it shouldn’t be an honour system. Make MLAs file receipts for their rent and living expenses and post them online. It’s a small price to pay for thousands in taxpayers’ dollars.
Every time there’s an instance of questionable expenses by a politician, it adds to the public’s cynicism. It’s not enough to pay it back or apologize when caught. Ethics are important in politics and voters are not quick to forgive transgressions. Politicians who abuse the system do so at their own peril. At the end of the day the voters are the employer and they may opt to hire someone else in the next election.