Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Sherry's legacy shows up in boost for children's ministry budget

VICTORIA - Call it the Sherry Charlie budget.
Sherry Charlie was beaten to death days after being placed in care under a new ministry policy. The failures in her case - by the ministry, and the First Nations agency responsible for her protection - forced the government to admit the facts.
And the response was evident in the budget.
For years the government has maintained that everything was fine in the ministry of children and families. Even earlier this month a senior ministry official briefing reporters was maintaining that the ministry had enough people, and enough front-line social workers, to do the job.
Now the government has acknowledged the obvious. Things were not fine. The ministry was starved of funds and short of staff. And children and families suffered as a result.
The budget confirms that. The ministry will get a 12-per-cent increase, another $200 million. A large chunk of the money will be set aside to respond to recommendations for change expected in Ted Hughes' report on the ministry. About 180 new staff will be hired.
It's a welcome step, but perhaps still not enough. Even with the increase, the ministry will have less money in real dollars this year than it did in 2001.
Overall, the 50-odd journalists (insert your joke here) in the budget lockup complained this was a boring document.
That's not a bad thing. It reflects the fact that for the most part the government is executing its three-year plan. There is no merit in budgets that constantly lurch off in new directions. This one appeared to balance spending and modest targeted tax cuts.
Health gets a 3.9-per-cent increase, enough to fund improvements, and education spending will rise 2.4 per cent.
Both those are on top of wage increases, which will be covered from a separate fund. That means there should be enough money to hire additional staff to deal with issues like class size and composition.
The wage issues remains a problem. Finance Minister Carole Taylor has set aside $420 million for increases this year, enough for an average 2.7-per-cent increase.
But contracts with some 300,000 government employees are expiring in the next few months. Many - teachers, doctors, health sector workers - are looking for much larger settlements. Their demands will test the government's commitment, especially given increasing public dissatisfaction with the Liberals quickness to substitute legislation and imposed contracts for negotiation.
There are other areas of concern. Despite a growing economy and population, Taylor is forecasting that government revenue will fall next year.
The finance types point to sound reasons, and risks like falling natural gas prices. And it is better to err on the side of caution.
But only up to a point. The government's budget for this year under-estimated actual revenue by $2.7 billion. That money that could have funded a tax cut, or increased services; now it will mostly go to debt repayment without a real public debate on the options.
What was missing from the budget?
An increase in welfare rates for starters, and a recognition that those left on the welfare rolls at this point will be hard to move into the workforce. It is time to reduce the desperation in their lives.
There was also little in this budget clearly earmarked for B.C.'s regions.
Even the pine beetle crisis continues to get insufficient attention. The province's funding is increased to $46 million, but the emphasis remains on harvesting the damaged wood and replanting. Little money is going to help communities prepare for decades of reduced timber supply one the beetle wood is harvested.
The Heartland, flavour of the month a few years ago, is now a forgotten concept.
Overall, give the budget a B.
A few tax cuts, split between business and individuals fairly even. Spending increases that will address some of the biggest problem areas.
And - thankfully - a recognition that the government's decisions had played a part in the death of a little girl.
Footnote: The budget forecasts that the province's debt will increase by $5 billion over the next three years. Taylor says the infrastructure spending is needed, and the debt is still manageable. Given the low revenue forecasts, larger surpluses will also likely reduce the real debt increase.


Anonymous said...

As usual anywhere outside the lower mainland is ignored. The Billions go to the Lower mainland while we watch our hospitals and schools disappear or deteriorate.
R. Sharp

Anonymous said...

People are calling it the Sherry budget, but it's geared to deflect the results of Ted Hughes report.It shows even the dumbest of us that the government cut too deeply, and are now putting back that amount at 2001 dollars. Shameful group.

What surpises me the most is that business folks who usually ramble on about the need to cut the debt are mute this time around. If the previous government had done the same the bellowing would be pretty loud. That 100 dollars for the home owners grant won't equal the proprerty tax increase on our 29 year old town house which suddenly became more valuable according to the assesment guys by 60,000 dollars, whill BC ferries got theirs cut over 7 millions of dollars. Fair, open, and accountable government, I don't think so. The towns with ferry terminals will have to pass that tax reduction for the ferries off to their own taxpayers.
The Victoria taxes are due to go up over 5 percent. do the math, who gets the deal and who doesn't.