Alberta auditor general budget vote lurches into uncharted territory
Meeting of little-known committee could have major political implications
It's not often a meeting of the Legislative Offices Committee attracts the kind of attention anticipated for the one scheduled for Tuesday morning.
The 11-member committee last met on Feb. 10 and voted on budget requests from two independent legislative officers.
Normally, it wouldn't meet again for weeks, or even months.
But the events of the past week have been anything but normal.
On the surface, last week's committee meeting seemed routine. Eight of the MLAs attended in person, three others listened, spoke and voted over the phone.
Standing Committee on Legislative Offices
Mr. Matt Jeneroux (Chair)
Dr. Richard Starke (Deputy Chair)
Mr. Gary Bikman
Ms. Laurie Blakeman
Dr. Neil Brown, QC
Ms. Alana DeLong
Mr. David Eggen
Mrs. Genia Leskiw
Mr. Sohail Quadri
Mr. Jeff Wilson
Mr. Steve Young*
*Due to Young's trade mission to South Dakota, PC MLA Cathy Olesen will act as substitute
The members heard presentations from Del Graff, Alberta's child and youth advocate, and Merwan Saher, the province's auditor general.
The committee is responsible for setting the budgets for both offices, as well as five others.
On this day, the advocate and the auditor both asked for two per cent of their budgets to be restored, cuts the committee had approved at a December meeting.
Graff's request was denied.
But in a 6-3 vote, four Tory MLAs sided with two opposition members and decided to restore the auditor general’s funding, all saying Saher and his officials convinced them the money would be worth spending because the office's work saves taxpayers money in the long run.
- Tories vote down request to restore funding for child death probes
- Alberta auditor general, child advocate face budget cuts
But the next day, Premier Jim Prentice told reporters at a news conference that the auditor general will not get that $546,000 back, and the committee will have to meet again to reverse its decision.
That meeting is scheduled for Tuesday morning. What happens then — and the fallout — will have an impact on the premier, the committee and others.
During Wednesday’s news conference, Prentice vowed "there will be no increases in funding to the auditor general's office."
- Youth advocate, Auditor General will get no new money
- Del Graff warns vulnerable children will suffer from cuts
Asked if he was overruling the committee, Prentice said, "Yes."
His comments have been blasted by critics, who accuse the premier of interfering with the work of an independent body of the legislature.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said she will raise a point of privilege with Speaker Gene Zwozdesky, asking him to admonish Prentice for overstepping his role.
Matt Jeneroux is a first-term Conservative MLA who sits at the front of the committee room and keeps track of the debate during meetings, alternating between members of the Tory caucus and the opposition.
Jeneroux stayed with the Tories and backed Prentice's leadership bid last summer. As committee chair, he scheduled Tuesday's meeting and posted an agenda on its website.
Despite repeated attempts to reach him, Jeneroux has not been available to comment on whether the premier ordered him to bring the committee back together and reverse its vote on the auditor general’s funding.
The committee member
The two-term MLA, who is not running in the next election, was unable to fully explain her reasoning for doing so, but did comment on the auditor's work.
"They save the government money. They find efficiencies and they keep the various government agencies accountable for their spending."
It's unclear whether Leskiw will put forward a motion Tuesday to rescind the funding.
The floor crossers
- 9 Wildrose MLAs, including Danielle Smith, cross to Alberta Tories
- TIMELINE | The rise and fall of Alberta's Wildrose Party
At the December meeting where the auditor general's budget was originally cut (one day before they crossed the floor), both first-term MLAs voted against the move.
When the committee reconsidered the cut on Feb. 10, Bikman and Wilson were consistent and both voted to restore the funding. Their votes on Tuesday will be carefully watched.
The opposition leader
Wildrose Leader Heather Forsyth thinks the whole process is badly flawed.
“In my 22 years as an elected representative,” she said last week, “I have never seen anything like it, ever. Period.”
"The Official Opposition, the Wildrose, was not represented on that legislative committee … and was not there to be a voice on behalf of Albertans,” she said.
Her party sent a letter to the Speaker, saying, "the current circumstances are extraordinary and require an immediate response that would allow the Wildrose Official Opposition full representation … at the next scheduled meeting."
No response has been received.
The NDP followed up and sent a supporting letter of their own to the speaker.
The legislative assembly website describes the role of Speaker Gene Zwozdesky as one that ensures "that members have the necessary tools and resources to fulfill their roles as representatives of the people of Alberta."
But he did encourage the non-PC members to collaborate.
“It's not non-typical for opposition parties to work together when they have an issue they want raised," he said.
Zwozdesky also wouldn’t comment on what the premier said about overturning the committee’s decision. Eventually, though, he may be asked to rule on whether Prentice broke the rules of the legislature.
Liberal Laurie Blakeman and New Democrat David Eggen are the only two non-Tories on the committee. Both say Tuesday’s meeting should not take place and both have hinted at introducing motions to stop proceedings soon after they begin.
The auditor general
In the middle of all this political drama is Auditor General Merwan Saher. As an independent officer of the legislature, his budget is set by this committee, without any need for approval from the premier or cabinet.
"There's a point at which … we just couldn't cut and be able to deliver the work that we're statutorily required to do in accordance with the professional standards that we have to follow."
After the premier announced the cut would be re-instated, Saher released a statement saying he was willing to meet with the committee to discuss the budget needs of his office. So far, he has not been invited to Tuesday’s meeting.