Riigikogu at attempt two to limit its love for cars

Oliver Kund
, reporter
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Photo: Erik Prozes / Postimees

The parliament has already set itself a luxury car limit once, then to withdraw it. A Postimees poll shows that in run-up to council of elders on Wednesday deputies remain worlds apart on how they ought to curb their rights to spend taxpayer money... if at all. 

Ironically, it was 15 years back sharp that the costs compensations saga got triggered. In September 2002 it was unearthed that during 14 months Riigikogu paid 120,000 Estonian kroons Kristiina Ojuland (then Reform) for staying at Hotel Pirita though fellow parliamentarians dwelling in selfsame building never saw her there. Thus the fresh foreign minister was forced to pay the state back part of the money, as at least two month of said period she resided in a Keila-Joa summer-house rented from Government Office.  

From there, the public opinion snowballed. Following the scandal, 91 percent in an EMOR poll demanded cleaning of house at Toompea. Board of the Riigikogu, led by speaker Toomas Savi (Reform) then decided to scrap the opaque representation expenses replacing these with transparent costs compensation. The options talked about were whether it should be 20, 25 or 30 percent of a deputy’s salary. As the law entered into force in March 2003, it sported the highest figure. Pursuant to the official explanation, this was to compensate the deputies having been stripped of the special pension and a host of other benefits from 1990ies such as unlimited rights to live in hotels.

Among other things, the law opened various new doors. For instance, it went by the philosophy that a deputy must be able to move into any place in the land. That carried with it the rights to use costs compensation to have a vehicle of choice for operational leasing. Financial lease was prohibited, as well as purchasing property for taxpayer money.

Not long till the first scandal. Mere half year later, in October 2003, we learned that Riigikogu member Robert Lepikson (Centre) had for costs compensation rented for his wife a silver-grey Mercedes 320E while himself drove to work in his company car. The trick was rivalled by People’s Union Janno Reiljan who had no driving licence having eyesight issues and let his unmarried partner ride around in a vehicle rented for taxpayer money.

While the prevalent mark was markedly a Mercedes, it became increasingly obvious that Riigikogu members were intending to afterwards buy the cars out for residual value. «No-one in Riigikogu may keep the car,» President of the Riigikogu Ene Ergma expressed public displeasure. «Costs compensation is meant for compensating costs not to buy stuff for oneself.» Prime Minister and chief of Res Publica Juhan Parts went as far as to issue commandments to faction to stop the leasing for costs compensation money – this, said he, was in contradiction with ethics and election promises.

«Time to give up what may be a speck or beam in eyes of voters, acknowledge the public pressure and give up leases under costs compensation,» Mr Parts thundered back then. This first half year, now in IRL, he had over €1,000 of operating lease covered out of costs compensation. In times past, the attitude towards public opinion was different, and the skin of politicians less thick. The Moderates, for instance, were quick to propose that costs compensation be abolished and, as was swiftly sought out by Chancellor of Justice Allar Jõks, the constitution allowed this to be done during the incumbent membership.  

This might spell déjà vu for some of the politicians of today. Just like this coming Wednesday’s council of elders, representatives of factions sat down in November 2003 to solve the costs compensation crisis. Then, doing away with the compensation was speedily rejected. Instead, they suggested a 2,500 kroons ceiling to deputy’s car lease. When the proposal afterwards made it into rulebook, it was well watered down: monthly car lease payments may not exceed half of monthly costs compensation.

Alas, as by a curse, the deputies continued to blunder. Along with economic growth, the costs compensation went on steroids: even at the 50 percent ceiling, the deputies were still able to lease luxury SUVs which cast Riigikogu in bad light.

Something had to be done. Indeed, in May 2007 all factions initiated a joint bill to replace costs with the opaque representation allowance. The latter would have been tax free, putting an end to the nuisance of presenting the cheques. «Not limited to discrediting single members of the parliament, costs compensations and interpretations thereof have discredited the Riigikogu as an institution,» substantiated Väino Linde (Reform), then chairman of constitutional committee.

Well, public uproar put an end to that. To halt the bill, Taxpayers Association needed mere week to collect 18,900 signatures and, to top it all, Chancellor of Justice said the tax-free representation allowance would be unconstitutional. Tamed down, the Riigikogu stuck with status quo.

But as the Status of Members of the Riigikogu Act then compiled entered into force in July 2007, it contained an almost invisible amendment – gone was the upper limit to operational lease. All told, the limit was limited to three years and six months.

Currently, 66 of the 1010 at Riigikogu use costs compensation to pay their car lease. The scheme used by Mihhail Stalnuhhin (Centre) who holds no drivers licence to draw from costs compensation to lease one car for son and one for wife is not even third of such instances. In 2011, the Riigikogu member Andrei Korobeinik (Reform) who rose to millionaire status by social site Rate.ee. Not limited to being without driver licence, Mr Korobeinik may in eyes of many have slipped by turning costs compensation into source of profit – renting a car from his own company.  

Then, deputies smeared painkiller salve on public opinion by promising the ethical lapses to be dealt with by a code of ethics. As at today the parliament has no code, as it was cut to a folder meant for fresh members. True, even the folder reads that public money is to be used sparingly and spending for no reason is to be avoided.

President of the Riigikogu Eiki Nestor told Postimees that the maximum that Wednesday might bring is that parties again arrive at upper limit to vehicle costs. The probability of rules more forceful is next to nothing. A reason being significant differences among the deputies.

As shown by a flash poll pulled by Postimees, the vision of compensations rules is wall to wall. Thereat, the lines go not by parties, nor even along world view lines. While all of EKRE were for abolishing all compensation, lion’s share at Riigikogu think it necessary to keep costs compensations at 30 percent. Elected from Viljandi and Valga Counties, Heimar Lenk (Centre) said that keeping costs compensation at €1,042 was needed as Riigikogu members use the money to support their electoral districts: they organise events, rent cultural facilities, pay bus and theatre tickets for children and elderly.

Some deputies think we must learn from the Nordics where costs compensation is linked to distance of electoral district to capital city, or to which committee the deputy sits at. As an example of that, at foreign affairs committee costs of entertaining guests are often higher than others.

There is a readiness to set an upper limit to car operating lease at Riigikogu, but at which level is a matter of hot debate. To this day, there are differences regarding if a member is good with a minimally €300 car or one for €500 a month. Soc Dems Rainer Vakra and Marianne Mikko proposed renting the entire Riigikogu a car fleet by way of underbidding. This way, they could not get them for their own afterwards.

Alarm bells should be ringing as even today a large part of deputies would wish the pain of costs compensation to be replaced by non-transparent representation allowance – extra pay, in essence – just as the scandalous 2007 membership once suggested. Representation allowance would be fine in eyes of members like Märt Sults (Centre), Artur Talvik (the Free) and Marianne Mikko (Soc Dems).