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.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Government condemns these children to suffering

VICTORIA - What kind of government can boot disabled 19-year-olds into the world knowing they face almost certain failure?
Not just the usual struggles of any young adult, but full-on disasters - poverty, chaos, crime, exploitation, sexual abuse and just plain lonely misery.
Child and Youth Officer Jane Morley has just reported on what happens to children in care with fetal alcohol disorder when they turn 19. The report reminds us that behind the statistics there are scared, struggling young people thrown alone into a world where they little chance of coping.
Fetal alcohol syndrome and its related disorders are terribly cruel afflictions. When a mother drinks during pregnancy the fetus can suffer permanent neurological damage, often with few physical symptoms. The effects are cruel. Children and adults suffering from the disorder often have great difficulty in looking ahead even a few minutes to judge the consequences of actions. They are impulsive and take big risks, without realizing that's what they are doing. Their social skills and judgment are terrible, leaving them at once lonely and isolated and vulnerable to exploitation by people who pretend to befriend them. They have difficulty learning and performing even moderately complex tasks.
None of this means that they can't also be sweet and successful people. They can work and manage and contribute, although a lot of support is often needed.
But they rarely get that help. Morley's report looked at what happens to children in government care with fetal alcohol disorders in government care when they turn 19. It's disheartening.
For most young people, turning 19 is a milestone. They still count on parental help and support, and likely will for several years. But they're moving on into the world.
For kids in government care - about 9,000 today - it's a terrible turning point. The children and families ministry assumes they are adults. They're sent away from foster homes.  The supports and counselling they were receiving end abruptly. They are on their own.
It's a ridiculous way to treat anyone. It's disastrous for youths with fetal alcohol disorders.
Morley's study looked at six real young people who were close to the age of 19. It evaluated the support they were receiving, their personal progress and problems and the help they would need to make it in the world.
Then the report looked at the help they would actually get under current government policies. That is, for the most, part, none.
So Ashley, 17, will be expected to live on her own, find work or get welfare, manage her money and avoid life's pitfalls with little or no structured help and no special financial assistance.
Except that today Ashley is receiving extensive support in a foster home. She can't manage money on her own, use public transit or shop for groceries. She forgets appointments and obligations and is lonely and insecure. She is already being exploited by people who see her as an easy victim.
Ashley's story could have a happy ending. She's going to high school and working in the cafeteria. She thinks, realistically, that with help she could have a good life. Her social worker and caregiver agree.
But instead she will be set adrift in world where she can not survive on her own.
That's immoral and costly. Picking up the pieces of shattered lives costs much more than providing needed help before it is too late.
Morley makes several recommendations, starting with a call for the government to provide transitional support that would continue until these people reach 24. Most children already receive such help; it's ludicrous to deny it to those who need it most.
But that's what the government has done. It is now fighting a B.C. Supreme Court ruling that it is illegal to cut off needed support arbitrarily at 19.
Children and Families Minister Tom Christensen won't commit to accepting any of Morley's recommendations.
We should all be ashamed.
Footnote: The province has a fetal alcohol strategy, but it emphasizes prevention and work with children and youth. A $10-million one-time grant to the Victoria Foundation earlier this year was also focused on those areas. Young adults, especially children aging out of care, have received little attention. Morley's report is available at