Cabinet shuffles are a costly venture for taxpayers.
B.C. residents foot the bill when a newly installed minister are expected to meet and get caught up with the stakeholders and interest groups their predecessor may have met with just months before.
Oak Bay-Gordon Head MLA Ida Chong racked up a $61,057 travel bill last year, which she attributes to having taken on three different ministerial portfolios in a 12-month time frame.
In the 2010-11 fiscal year, Chong served as minister of healthy living and sport, sciences and universities, and regional economic and skills development.
“When I took on universities and colleges, there was a huge demand for me to visit them all and get up to speed on the initiatives they started with (former minister of advanced education) Moira (Stilwell),” she said.
“If you’re supposed to understand and bring in legislation and policy, sometimes you have to go out and see how things work.”
Former NDP leader and Victoria-Beacon Hill MLA Carole James says that is a prime example of extraneous, unnecessary spending.
“Every time you change cabinet you have different travel costs, you have new business cards, and those are taxpayers’ dollars,” James said.
The most “exotic” place Chong traveled to as a minister last year was Salt Lake City, Utah. The majority of her trips were to Vancouver, she said, but she couldn’t guess how many days during the year she was on the road.
“Everybody will say: ‘Boy, she tries to go to everything,’ which is my reputation,” Chong said.
Minister and MLA expenses were released last week as part of the public accounts portion of the province’s finances. It was the first time MLAs’ spending was released.
Of all ministers, Chong had the third-largest travel bill, after Minister of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation Pat Bell ($68,467), who also oversaw Forests, Mines and Lands last year, and Kevin Krueger, former Minister of Tourism, Culture and the Arts, and Social Development ($65,562).
Chong, who is now Minister of Community, Sport and Cultural Development, had an additional $1,635 travel bill as an MLA.
The region’s NDP MLAs’ bills were topped by James ($39,869), followed by Saanich South’s Lana Popham ($28,825), Victoria-Swan Lake’s Rob Fleming ($26,683), Malahat-Juan de Fuca’s John Horgan ($15,745) and Maurine Karagianis of Esquimalt-Royal Roads ($12,044).
“Being a critic involves a lot of travel,” said Popham, who is the NDP’s agriculture watchdog. “I take my role very seriously, and that leads me to areas around the province that I have to fly to, stay overnight, rent cars.”
Gregory Thomas, B.C. director of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation, said the transparency of public accounts is a good thing, but he added that more detailed summaries may be needed.
“It’s progress, but they’re years behind the rest of the country,” he said, adding that many other jurisdictions provide scans of receipts or a breakdown of each expense.
“It’s not rocket science. Providing one expenditure line for the whole year just doesn’t cut it in 2011.”
The MLAs all said they’re cognizant of spending taxpayers’ money, though Chong said of her bill: “I was surprised to see the amount as high as it was.”
Popham believes most MLAs are responsible with their spending.
“When I make a choice to claim something, I reflect on how that would look to the taxpayers, because if I can’t explain it, I’m not going to do it,” she said.
For the 2010-11 year, a total of $2,402,211 was spent by ministers and all other MLAs on travel. Deputy and associate ministers spent an additional $786,168.