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Op/Ed: B.C. legislature needs spending reform

Taxpayers puked a year ago, and they still feel nauseous.

Another investigation has confirmed there is a sickening waste of taxpayer dollars afflicting the B.C. legislature. We need more than ginger ale, noodle soup and soothing words — we need a policy overhaul.

While Auditor-General Carol Bellringer’s investigation wasn’t a forensic audit that investigates allegations of fraud, her work found a stomach-turning lack of accountability.

Ideally, we could grab the legislature by the foundation, turn it upside down, and shake it until all the misspent loonies rolled out. Unfortunately, it won’t be that easy to get our money back, but we can reform the rules to make sure our tax dollars aren’t wasted again.

Bellringer found that even if a whistleblower had noticed when the former clerk, sergeant-at-arms and the speaker were jet-setting to places such as the United Kingdom and raiding expensive gift shops, the staffer could not have reported it. Nobody was there to hear any whistleblowers.

The report also found that the Legislative Assembly Management Committee (LAMC) lacks organization and a chain of command. It’s an all-party committee of the legislature. Members are supposed to be keeping an eye on the money, the equivalent to the Public Accounts Committee in Ottawa where David Dingwall, former head of the Canadian mint, famously denied expensing a pack of gum with the line “I am entitled to my entitlements.” Clearly, in B.C., the watchdog is drowsy.

The report also found that officers of the legislature were approving their own spending with no clear work justifications. For example, on page 23, Bellringer writes: “From April 2016 to December 2018, the clerk incurred $108,656 in travel costs for 14 out-of-province trips. None of the clerk’s out-of-province travel had prior approval documented in the expense claims.”

And, on page 27, Bellringer details $17,222 on clothing purchases that do not have a business justification, including a Jan. 3, 2018, bill for a suit, four cufflink sets, a pair of shoes, a pair of trousers and two hats totalling $4,810.

This is no surprise to British Columbians who have been following this situation since Speaker Darryl Plecas first delivered his report detailing the abuse of taxpayers’ money last year. Plecas said that if the details of the spending he had uncovered didn’t make taxpayers want to “throw-up,” then he would resign. We’ve been heaving ever since.

Plecas scanned hundreds of original receipts from the past two years. Our money was blown on baloney such as Apple TVs, magazine subscriptions, cameras, cufflinks, suits, suitcases, wrist watches, whiskey cakes and Seattle Mariners baseball tickets.

Why wasn’t a forensic audit triggered during the auditor-general’s report, when, in Plecas’ report, legislature staff were accused of expensing “tsunami awareness” activities and “mass evacuation training” that were actually a whale-watching trip and a Seattle Mariners baseball game? Don’t those kinds of alleged discrepancies deserve the closest possible scrutiny?

This lack of accountability needs to stop. Every dollar spent at the legislature needs to be accounted for. Fortunately, there are reforms that can be made.

The officers of the legislature should have their spending approved by the elected MLAs on the LAMC, and expenses should all be posted on the internet. They should be open to freedom-of-information requests. It’s taxpayers’ money and we should be able to hold legislative officers accountable.

Politicians on LAMC need a clear management structure and a way for staffers to report wrongdoing. Meetings need to be regular, recorded and streamed online. The recommendations are so obvious that it’s sad that this needs to be pointed out.

The wood splitter, which cost B.C. taxpayers $3,200 for no discernible reason, merits special prominence. Woody the Woodsplitter is languishing in the back parking lot. It should be set near the legislature’s side entrance where our lawmakers walk into the building. It should be a sharp reminder: “Do not waste taxpayers’ money.”

Kris Sims is the B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

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