Friday, February 13, 2009

Games and guns make for rough legislature week

Ah, the legislature is a wondrous and often appalling place.
MLAs have been back four days, in a special sitting to change the balanced law so deficits are OK for the next two years.
No one has really paid attention to that debate, because the outcome is guaranteed. The Liberal majority now supports deficits now; so does the NDP.
Question period, the daily half-hour in which opposition MLAs attempt to catch out cabinet ministers, has been the main attraction.
That's because the press gallery crew watch each day for stories, ready to scrum both sides in the hall once the "Bell ends question period," as the Speaker says every sitting day. (Blessedly, I add quietly on many of them.)
On Thursday, they saw Finance Minister Colin Hansen, usually more sensible and effective, ignore eight questions about Olympic costs completely.
Each time, he stood up and talked about how great the Games would be and how the New Democrats were just gloomy worrywarts. It was the start of the one-year countdown to the Games, he said. Lighten up.
Carole James and company were, of course, trying to embarrass the government.
But the questions seemed legitimate. B.C. Hydro told the utilities commission Games-related security could cost an extra $7 million next year. It asked for a rate increase to cover the cost.
Natural gas suppliers are seeking increases. TransLink is spending millions. How much is all this costing British Columbians?
Should B.C. Hydro, for example, be collecting the security costs from low-income seniors through higher power rates, or should the government be paying it as an Olympic cost? That would mean a more equitable sharing of the burden.
And why did B.C. Hydro and ICBC - both effectively monopolies - become Games sponsors and buy 3,800 tickets to events? How much will customers pay?
The amounts are small. Perhaps the average household will pay $3.50 extra in electricity costs. But the questions deserved some response.
The other big theme for the week was the out-of-control gang shootings in the Lower Mainland. A lot of muscled, tattooed guys who watched Scarface too many times are shooting each other and spraying bullets around.
Gordon Campbell had a rare stumble on the issue. As the latest shell casings were being picked up, he said the government had done a lot on gangs. The effort would be stepped up, but only by shifting officers and prosecutors from other priorities. There would be no increased spending to deal with gangs.
But people in the Lower Mainland - from Abbotsford in - are worried about the daytime shootouts in supermarket parking lots. The answer seemed dismissive.
Inside the legislature, Attorney General Wally Oppal answered questions by saying the New Democrats did a worse job of dealing with gang crime in the 1990s.
Apparently no one had told him that's probably one of the many reasons the voters booted the NDP government.
Politically, it's interesting. The Liberals are trying to be the real Olympic boosters while portraying James as anti-Games; the NDP want to be boosters, but with a worried eye on the costs.
Practically, the focus is wrong. The Games are coming and the money is spent. The goal should be to get the maximum benefit. There will be a significant economic contribution in 2010, a needed boost.
But the challenge is to attract tourists, investors and creative people. Then auditor general Wayne Strelioff, in a 2006 report, said there could be big benefits. He added a warning, quoting consultants who worked on the assessment. "These benefits will not materialize automatically," they said. "They must be earned by a focused, adequately funded and skillfully executed marketing program."
The challenge is now much greater because of the recession.
The Games are coming; it's time to focus on benefits. Or end up like Turin, the forgotten host of the 2006 Winter Games.
Footnote: Campbell addressed the gang issue Friday, promising 131 officers would be transferred to the organized crime squad and 10 additional prosecutors dedicated to the work. The government also plans to ban body armour and seek tougher sentences and bail conditions for gun crimes.

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