Committee votes to reimpose $546,000 cut to Auditor General's budget

The province’s committee on legislative offices voted to reinstate a $546,000 cut to the budget of Alberta’s Auditor General in a contentious meeting Tuesday morning — one week after the same committee voted to return the money.

Critics accused Premier Jim Prentice of meddling in independent committee

Auditor General Merwan Saher argued that his office required the $546,000 returned to the budget to effectively do its job. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

The province’s committee on legislative offices voted to reimpose a $546,000 cut to the budget of Alberta’s Auditor General in a contentious meeting Tuesday morning — one week after the same committee voted to return the money.

“Changing the decision that we made here on this committee is perplexing, not just to me but to Albertans in general,” NDP MLA David Eggen said during the debate.

Last week, the Tory-dominated committee comes voted 6-3 to reverse the cut to the office of Auditor General Merwan Saher.

Saher had argued the cut, which were first announced in December, would hamper his office’s ability to properly monitor government spending.

The fight over the AG's budget

Dec. 20 - The legislative committee votes to cut $546,000 from the AG's budget, part of $1 million worth spread over several independent government watchdogs.

Feb. 10 - The committee agrees to restore the $546,000 to the budget, following an appeal from the Auditor General. 

Feb. 11 - Premier Jim Prentice holds a press conference where he says the money will not be return to the budget, despite his "respect" for the committee's decision. 

Feb. 17 - In a special meeting, the PC members of the committee vote to reverse their previous decision to restore the money. 

Following last week’s vote, Premier Jim Prentice held a news conference to announce he was overruling the committee's decision, citing a forecast $7-billion shortfall in Alberta’s budget.

Opposition parties have criticized Prentice for meddling in what is supposed to be an independent committee.

Following Prentice’s remarks, the legislative committee scheduled a special meeting Tuesday, where they voted overwhelmingly to reinstate the half-million dollar budget cut.

Progressive Conservative MLA Jeff Wilson said he respected the work of the Auditor General, and the reduction won’t prevent the office from doing its work.

“The sooner we accept this is not business as usual, and adjust our expectations, the better,” he said.

He argued that Saher’s office is among the best funded in the country, noting that it receives $10 million more in annual funding than his counterpart in Ontario.

“While I recognize that cutting two per cent from a budget can be challenging, I respectfully reject the position ... that it will cut the office off at the knees,” Wilson said.

Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman fired back, saying it was not fair to compare Alberta’s Auditor General to other provinces without considering the differences in responsibilities and legislation.

She also took aim at Prentice’s influence on the ostensibly independent committee.

“The fact that the premier got up on television and said, ‘I demand this committee cut this money’ ... and instructed the committee to do something, reflects very badly on this committee and very badly on the premier,” Blakeman said.

Blakeman and Eggen both voted against the motion, with eight PC MLAs supporting it. Traditionally, the chair of the committee, PC MLA Matt Jeneroux, does not vote. 

Jeneroux said the talk of financial hardship was a factor in the decision, but insisted the committee was still independent.

Asked about the criticism of the premier's involvement, Prentice's office provided a written response that said the premier is focused on the province's financial situation.

"The premier made his views with respect to the auditor general’s budget known last week, and today the committee met to reconsider that budget," the statement said. 

'A mockery of democracy:' Wildrose

Opposition parties began the meeting with objections over the make-up of the committee.

When the 11 members were selected by the legislative assembly last fall, four were from opposition parties: two Wildrose MLAs and one each from the Liberals and NDP.

However, the two Wildrose members - Jeff Wilson and Gary Bikman - crossed the floor and joined the PC Party, leaving Alberta’s official opposition with no one on the committee.

Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman called on the committee to include members from his party, saying otherwise was a 'mockery of democracy.' (CBC)
​Wildrose MLA Rick Strankman, who is not a committee member but was present for the meeting, argued that his party should have a seat at the table.

“It is allowing what I believe to be a mockery of democracy,” he said

“We can forget the ‘no meet’ committee; government members have turned this into the ‘why-meet?’ committee.”

He argued the original members were chosen because of their party, and that not allowing the Wildrose to be part of the committee went against the original intent of the assembly.

Blakeman pushed to have the committee invite a Wildrose MLA to join, but was told the committee did not have the authority to do so.