Yes, the Sunshine List still matters

Once a year the Ontario government releases the names and salaries of government employees earning a taxpayer-funded salary of over $100,000. And like clockwork, critics complain that the $100,000 threshold for this “Sunshine List” is inappropriate.

The main arguments are that the Sunshine List is that $100,000 number is too low because it hasn’t been adjusted for inflation, and that the list doesn’t allow us to measure the performance of decision makers.

Both of these Sunshine List criticisms are wrong.

The Sunshine List is an important accountability tool for government, and an important measure for understanding the massive growth of the government that has occurred in Ontario.

In their own news release, the government complains that the $100,000 threshold was first implemented in 1996, and has not been adjusted for inflation. While they have said they have no plans to make such an adjustment, they nevertheless place a huge asterisk on the data and point to it in their talking points.

Obviously, $100,000 meant a lot more 22 years ago when just 4,576 people appeared on the list, compared with today’s 131,741. Adjusted for inflation, $100,000 would be $151,929 today.

But even using the inflation adjusted amount, there are 19,922 government employees on the Sunshine List. That’s a 335 per cent increase in the size of the list, even using 1996 dollars. The population during that same time period has grown by about 31 per cent. The massive growth in the ranks of government employees making these huge salaries can’t be explained by anything other than government largesse.

Other sectors of the Ontario economy have not seen this massive wage growth. In fact, 2016 census data shows that while Canadian incomes have jumped, Ontario has bucked the trend with slow growth, more low income households, and a manufacturing decline.

Average weekly wages for workers in Ontario are $974, which amounts to $50,600 per year. That includes overtime pay, and assumes no weeks off. This is half of the Sunshine List threshold. Try telling these thousands of Ontarians that the $100,000 Sunshine List threshold is too low.

Meanwhile, over a ten year period, wage growth among bureaucrats has been the second highest in the country at 26 per cent. This government wage growth has only been exceeded by growth in mining and oil and gas. And while Canada has been fortunate to have experienced a natural resources boom, there is no justification for a corresponding government boom.

No matter how you slice it, $100,000 is a lot of money, and there are an awful of lot government employees earning it. The Sunshine List is important because it allows us to see just how many people are earning these big salaries, it allows us to see how the middle management class of government workers has ballooned – even with an inflation adjustment – and it allows us to do a year over year comparison to see how quickly these ranks are growing.

The other criticism of the Sunshine List is that it doesn’t measure performance. We know how much people are earning, but we don’t know if they deserve it, or if they are doing a good job.

Certainly, the many thousands of Ontarians who struggle to pay their electricity bill each month are aghast to learn that Ontario Power Generation CEO Jeff Lyashtook home $1.55 million in taxpayer dollars last year. While Mr. Lyash and all those listed in the top 10 on the Sunshine list are subject to much derision over their very high salaries, and it’s appropriate to ask what is fair compensation for these jobs, and how people in these roles are held accountable, this misses the more important point of the Sunshine List.

The Sunshine List isn’t a performance measure, and it isn’t intended as one.

The top earners are less concerning than the bloat of middle management, for example the 7,876 people on the list from Ontario Power Generation who are not Jeff Lyash. Or the thousands of highly paid city employees, especially in cities where incomes tend to average lower than the rest of the province. Or the many people on the Sunshine List who are earning six figures for jobs that don’t require it, like the 518 TTC vehicle operators on the list. In these cases, the Sunshine List isn’t showing the performance of decision makers, it is showing how well paid people are for roles with little to no decision making authority.

Accountability matters, and taxpayers in Ontario have very few tools in their toolbox for holding their government accountable for how their hard earned tax dollars are spent. The Sunshine list is one of those few tools, and even 22 years after its inception, continues to matter.

— Christine Van Geyn

Christine is Ontario Director of Canadian Taxpayers Federation