The NDP government introduced legislation Thursday that will require the earnings of thousands of public-sector workers be publicly disclosed if they make more than $125,000 a year.
The new rules would expand Alberta’s so-called sunshine list to include doctors, nurses, professors and employees of more than 150 provincial agencies, boards and commissions.
“This government is committed to helping ensure Albertans know how public money is spent,” Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley, who tabled the bill in the legislature, said Thursday. “This legislation is aimed to get at essentially high-income earners who are on the public dime. … The bill follows through on our promise to improve transparency in our public sectors.”
Current rules in Alberta already require the disclosure of earnings of government employees who make a base salary more than $104,754, adjusted each year for inflation. That so-called sunshine list included 3,556 employees in 2015.
The new Public Sector Compensation Transparency Act broadens that list significantly to include university professors and nurses who earn more than $125,000 in salary, overtime and bonuses. The legislation will also reveal the names of employees of 157 provincial agencies, boards and commissions, including top executives at Alberta Investment Management Corp. and the Alberta Petroleum Marketing Commission, if they make above the $125,000 threshold. Under former premier Jim Prentice, the province previously deemed such salaries exempt to respect the arm’s-length nature of those bodies and make sure hiring wasn’t hindered.
Doctors, too, will also have to disclose how much they earn through fee-for-service agreements and payments from Alberta Health Services, Covenant Health or other public health-care entities. But because they are paid from numerous other sources, regulations and disclosures might take a bit more time.
“I don’t think there will be a lot of contentiousness about this,” Ganley said. “Public sector workers don’t want their privacy unfairly invaded, but they also understand that this government has a commitment to transparency, particularly when we’re dealing with (people earning) over $125,000, so it’s higher-salary-range people.”
Dr. Carl Nohr, president of the Alberta Medical Association, said he’s concerned about disclosing numbers out of context. Doctors may report high salaries, but work extremely long hours because they live in a small communities or have specialty skills. Physicians also don’t pocket all their fees, but use the money to pay staff, buy equipment and in many cases pay for utilities and upkeep of clinic space.
“I think there will be some concerns, mostly around the areas of privacy and possible misunderstandings about what the numbers mean,” Nohr said. “I don’t think it’s any real secret that doctors are compensated reasonably. … It’s important to note that physician payments do not equate to physician income.”
Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta, said few nurses would be captured by the new legislation, since no nurse working regular full-time hours would qualify.
“Any nurse that has received salary compensation greater than $125,000 does so as a result of significant overtime and/or on-call pay,” Smith said in an email. “The correct response of Alberta Health Services to avoid payment to registered nurses above $125,000 per year would be to hire sufficient numbers of RNs to avoid the requirement for systemic overtime and on-call pay. Many more would be above the threshold if all registered nurses who worked unpaid overtime were paid for their work.”
Ganley said the $125,000 threshold was chosen to include overtime and bonuses. The $104,000 limit for government workers is the base salary and requires staff to manually exclude overtime hours, which is a huge administrative burden.
The new government is letting school boards and municipalities choose whether or not to reveal the salaries of teachers and city employees. Current legislation already requires school boards to disclose how much board members and superintendents earn, as well as city councillors and chief administrative officers.
“Municipalities and school boards are made up of elected officials themselves,” Ganley said. “That accountability will allow them to determine what’s best for their local municipalities, their school board.”
If passed, the bill will generate its first sunshine list of employees on June 30, 2016. The government still has to decide if that list will be released in a government database or on a website with links to the various entities. But in the end, patients, students and members of the public should be able to search for the names of individuals and see if they earn above the set amount.
Jason Nixon, Wildrose’s accountability critic, said he’s cautiously optimistic the bill will create a more open government. But he said he would like all disclosure limits at $104,000.
“It doesn’t make any sense to us to have two different standards across the government,” Nixon said. “We believe that the NDP need to give Albertans a bit better explanation. ”
Such broad-sweeping legislation already exists in B.C., Ontario and Manitoba.
New to the sunshine list:
- Salaries of all board members of 157 provincial agencies, boards and commissions (those on which government appoints 50 per cent or more of the directors or owns all the voting shares), no matter if they receive small per-diem amounts or bigger amounts for full-time work. That includes the new board of Alberta Health Services and well as boards of governors for colleges, institutes and universities.
- Employees of those 157 agencies, boards and commissions who earn $125,000 or more. That includes the Agriculture Financial Services Corp., which provides crop insurance and disaster assistance after droughts, Alberta Treasury Branches, a Crown corporation owned by the government, and the Alberta Gaming and Liquor Commission.
- Employees of Alberta Health Services, post-secondary institutions and the independent offices of the legislature (such as the auditor general, ethics commissioner, child and youth advocate) if they earn $125,000 or more.
The justice minister has the power to exempt employees from the sunshine list on a case-by-case basis if individuals believe their safety is at risk.
When Crown prosecutors tried to keep their name off the sunshine list in 2014 for security reasons, the Alberta Court of Appeal unanimously overturned that injunction.
Finance Minister Joe Ceci simultaneously announced the launch of a much-delayed review of the province’s agencies, boards and commissions, which direct the spending of almost 50 per cent of the government’s budget. The first phase of the review, to be complete by March 2016, will focus on 136 of 301 such entities that fall under the Alberta Public Agencies Governance Act.
Government ministries will look at the organizations associated with their departments and will see if their mandates are outdated and if some should be amalgamated because of duplications. Board membership and governance will also be reviewed, since the previous Tory government attracted scrutiny for stacking boards with political supporters and friends.
“What we are ensuring we’re doing going forward is that merit is the primary reason to get an appointment,” Ceci said. “My goal is to ensure that Albertans are getting good value.”
The review will look at potential cost savings. An outside consultant will advise government on rationalizing and standardizing compensation levels.
The second phase of the review, to be completed by next summer, will include 141 agencies not governed under the act. The third phase of the review will be finished in fall 2016 and focus on boards of governors at public post-secondary institutions.