Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Money raining down from Victoria, but will it win votes

VICTORIA - It's positively energizing heading into work at the Press Gallery right now, confident that each day will bring a new spending announcement to report.
The mining industry gets a $25-million boost one day, women's shelters $12.5 million the next. Schools hit the jackpot, and get $150 million. Legal aid gets $4.6 million more.
My rough count puts the tally at something like $400 million in the last three weeks. The steady flow of press releases and promises prompted BCTV to dig back into the video vault, and find film from the Liberals' 1996 election campaign. Back then they staged a stunt that had a guy in a bad Glen Clark mask slinging gold coins off a dump truck, the theme being that the NDP was shovelling money off the back of a truck to try and buy votes.
Gordon Campbell - nine years younger - was there with a shovel, scraping up the coins off the pavement and throwing them back on the truck.
The whole thing was kind of cheesy looking, the kind of stunt that probably cost the Liberals votes in that close election.
So is it the same thing in reverse almost a decade later? Are the Liberals doing just what they accused the NDP of doing, chucking money off the back of a truck and trying to buy peoples' votes with their own money?
Not really.
Sure, they're trying to persuade you that all sorts of good things will come if you just re-elect them. And the Campbell government, with a reputation for indifference at best, mean-spiritedness at worst, is trying to show that it really cares about improving services.
But there's at least one significant difference this time around. The Liberals can actually afford to deliver on their promises - or at least the ones made so far - without creating future deficits. Government revenues over the next several years will cover the increased costs. That wasn't true for the NDP in 1996.
The Liberals have their own problems around these spending announcements.
Take the $150 million in additional school funding, for example.
Sounds like a lot. But even with the increase, the money going to school districts will have increased by 8.2 per cent since the Liberals were elected. The consumer price index, the basic measure of inflationary pressures, will have risen by almost 14 per cent through the same period.
Education Minister Tom Christensen argues that's not really a fair comparison. The number of students in the system has gone down, so school districts should expect less money.
That's partly true. But a drop in students doesn't necessarily translate into a drop in costs for school districts; if there are 15 fewer children in a school the heating bill and other fixed costs stay the same. Still, the government can now point to a real increase in the amount of money available per student (or will be able to next year). Since the election the amount of money school boards get per student will have risen by about $225, or 3.5 per cent, in real terms.
Other questions will remain for some voters. Christensen said the new money would be targeted at providing library services, arts and music programs and special needs. Those were all areas hurt by the education funding policies introduced by the LIberals in their first year.
The government position is that there was no choice, The province couldn't afford to provide the desired quality of education for students. Voters will be judging whether that is true, and how much the Liberals' massive first-day tax cuts created the funding crisis. Those judgments will be one factor in how people view these spending announcements. The other major factor will be trust. The Liberals have to convince voters that they are promising the spending because they believe the services are important - and not just because we are in the last months before the election.
Footnote: Expect the announcements to continue. Almost all the initiatives unveiled so far will be included in the Feb. 15 budget, but the Liberals want to make sure they won't be lost on in the flood of news on budget day. That leaves almost two more weeks of spending good news.

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