Friday, November 17, 2006

Public clear - give us more services, we’ll pay

VICTORIA - Commentators seem to think it shows some problem that British Columbians have ideas for where government could do more, but can’t offer up any places to cut spending.
But why? Surely the public has a right to tell government that spending cuts aren’t needed.
And surely that’s exactly what the vast majority - say 90 per cent - of the 8,000 submissions told the legislative finance committee.
The committee has just reported on its budget consultations with British Columbians and offered up its recommendations.
Finance Minister Carole Taylor had tried to frame the discussion as a question of trade-offs. The public shouldn’t just offer ideas for areas where more needs to be done, but also where cuts could be made to offset any new spending.
British Columbians told the committee they didn’t see areas where government should be cutting spending.They don’t want any money wasted and they’re nervous about Olympic costs. But the 8,000 people and organizations didn’t want government to cut services or programs. They believed they were useful.
In fact, they wanted government to do more. They wanted it to spend the money needed to provide faster access to health care. They wanted a bigger investment in education, from kindergarten through university. They thought the environment and climate change should be priorities. And they convinced the committee that a bigger, faster investment is needed in affordable housing and services for women.
Why should that be a surprise? Government is a service provider; the legislative committee is effectively doing market research. And what people are saying is that they want services from government, for themselves and to make the community better. And they don’t want reductions.
Not surprising. People always want lots of features. They don’t always want to pay for them.
But there’s good news for the government. First, it has the ability to keep the customers’ satisfied. It’s forecasting annual surpluses of at least $1.2 billion for this year and the next two.
And even better, the market research - that is the committee consultations - found the public isn’t looking to pay less. Tax cuts simply weren’t a priority.
Business groups want B.C.’s tax regime to remain competitive, and that is important. But even business spokesmen had few immediate issues, like the capital tax on financial institutions. The public also thought the property transfer tax was taking too big a bite as house prices soared.
But generally, there was no demand for tax cuts, the report noted.
That’s a change from a decade ago. People were concerned about the level of taxation and were prepared to see governments cut services. They believed - with justification - that their money was not being spent wisely and carefully.
Governments responded. Now the public is prepared to pay. A majority of Albertans didn’t want this year’s $400 rebate cheques from their government; they thought the money go for better services. A 2004 Ipsos-Reid poll found 60 per cent of British Columbians would prefer higher property taxes to reduced services.
Really, it’s a compliment to politicians. People believe they are getting value for money and prepared to pay more. And, since they are also worried about the province’s debt, they see a need to pay as they go.
Of course, none of this much matters. The legislative committee is like the eight-year-old who’s asked where he thinks the family should go on vacation. Cute, but pretty much irrelevant.
The committee got a very similar same message two years ago. The public said 80 per cent of any surplus should got to improving services, especially education and health. When the dust settled, education and health got one per cent of the surplus; 80 per cent of the money went to paying down debt.
But maybe this time the government will be more attentive.
It would be wise. The public is saying don’t waste our money, but we’re prepared to trust you to collect taxes and deliver the services we need to live happily in this very fine place.
That’s a big compliment. Why not listen?
Footnote: There has been some suggestion Campbell is committed to tax cuts in this budget, apparently based on his speech to this month’s Liberal party convention. But Campbell speech talked about more tax cuts “within this mandate.” That means anytime up until the 2009 budget, not necessarily this spring.


Anonymous said...

Most of the services the folks are asking to get back were cut by Gordo for his famous tax deduction, which also produced the biggest deficit in BC history he of course blamed it all on the previous government. They had handed over government with two back to back surpluses, so Gordo had to produce a deficit.I want the court houses, hospitals, schools and a number of other things returned. My God he even tried to increase bus fare for seniors and of course screwed up Pharmicaire big time. But Gordy is always, at least in his mid , right

Dawn Steele said...

This is a good summary, though I wouldn't assume that the overall push for more services is a "compliment" re government's ability to manage. Clearly it's a reaction to a perception of harm due to inadequate services. But with currently overflowing coffers following deep and non-evidence-based provincial budget cuts, I'd say it's more likely evidence that people feel the cuts went too far and that leaders are out of touch with their communities.

For example, I have grave reservations about CLBC and government's overall approach in creating and running it, but I appealed strongly to the committee for more funding because community living, and CLBC as its managing authority, has been seriously underfunded since recent budget cuts of over $100 million.

Funding and management are two entirely different things, although management can of course aggravate or mitigate underfunding and vice versa. The case for creating CLBC was that it would allow more cost-effective service delivery, thus mitigating the impact of budget cuts. But despite huge effort and expense, that's obviously not happened.

So grassroots appeals for more funding may just as well be the result of perceived mismanagement and poor judgment - more a warning than a compliment.

Anonymous said...

A combination of a desire for more services and a low demand for tax cuts does not imply that people are willing to pay more taxes for those services. The disheartening aspect of this consultation process is that much of the feedback came from the usual interest groups looking for more money, and that there was the usual unwillingness to recognize that there's only a certain amount of money to go around to pay for it all.

Anonymous said...

Interesting subject; very controversial. Will look into this more. Toner

Anonymous said...

S.K fails to mention that the large surplus is partly due to those services being cut or reduced. I'd be quite willing to go back to a time before the small tax cuts I got if the services were returned. But Gordon wants to stack up some bucks for the inevitable Olympic costs over runs