Alberta MLAs have voted to take a five per cent pay cut in a move the opposition NDP labelled a cynical gambit to seize the moral high ground prior to cutting the wages of nurses, teachers, and other public sector workers.
"(This is) not to set an example," NDP member Brian Mason told the all-party member services committee Wednesday.
"(It's to) insulate MLAs and insulate the government from criticism that will certainly be made when they're asking public employees to take reductions in their wages."
Not true, said government whip George VanderBurg, who introduced the motion.
"It's a difficult time for Albertans, and I believe that we need to set an example for all Albertans that we're willing to dig into our pockets as well," he said.
Wildrose member Rick Strankman made a motion to have cabinet members take a 30 per cent pay cut, matching the 30 per cent hike they gave themselves in 2008.
The motion was defeated, but not before Mr. Strankman was scolded by Mr. VanderBurg for pitting party caucuses against one other.
"We're stooping to the bottom of the barrel when we start playing games like this, and I don't appreciate it," said Mr. VanderBurg.
Liberal member Raj Sherman disagreed, saying, "both (motions) are politicization of MLA pay."
Mr. VanderBurg made the pay-cut motion at the request of Premier Jim Prentice.
Mr. Prentice announced last week he and his cabinet members were taking the five per cent cut in order to lead the way as Alberta wrestles with a $7-billion hole in its budget due to the recent collapse in oil prices.
The premier has ruled out a number of options to rescue the economy, including a sales tax and hikes to corporate taxes and oil royalties. However, he is looking at changes to personal income tax and says public sector workers need to do their part.
Mr. Prentice has refused to say if he is asking the unions for wage cuts, but has said wage hikes alone will cost $2.6 billion over the next three years.
Union leaders say they've already taken wage freezes in recent years and are not open to further austerity.
Wednesday's committee decision immediately reduces the basic MLA salary to slightly more than $127,000 a year.
Cabinet ministers will now make almost $191,000.
Mr. Prentice will take home $207,000.
Mr. Prentice has said the total saving of both the MLA and cabinet pay cut will be about $600,000.
It was a unanimous decision by the committee, but the members were anything but united.
Mr. Mason voted for it, saying that if he voted against it, the Tories would use it to pummel the NDP on the campaign trail, distracting from the real issues that matter to voters.
Sherman abstained from the vote, saying it's wrong for MLAs to vote on their own pay and that the entire issue should be given to a third party.
Prentice is expected to call a spring election.
He has said his financial plan, to be unveiled next month with the budget, will need a mandate from the people.