Friday, January 30, 2009

Who will get stuck with the $1-billion Games security bill?

You can't blame Colin Hansen for getting cranky about Olympic security costs.
But you also shouldn't forget this mess is partly the B.C. Liberals' fault.
With a year to go until the Vancouver Games, and weeks before the province's budget day, the only thing certain is that security costs are hundreds of millions of dollars over budget.
That's no surprise. The budget - $175 million to be split between the federal and provincial governments - was recognized as unrealistically low from day one.
But now the cost estimates are reported to be around the $1-billion mark.
And since the province is on the hook for Games' cost overruns, that means a big hit for provincial taxpayers this year.
How big is still to be determined. Hansen's officials are wrangling with the feds and the RCMP about what should be included in the actual costs of Games security. They argue that the bill should only include security at the Games venues. Other costs are a federal responsibility, the province says.
Sorting the cost-sharing out won't be easy.
Any manager will recognize the opportunity this situation offers to the RCMP. New equipment, fancy technology, training costs - from the perspective of the force, the more you can dump into the budget the better. It's money you don't have to find somewhere else.
And given the tough economic times, the federal government will be trying to limit its contribution.
Even though the original figure was always seen as unrealistically low - except by various ministers in the Campbell government, who maintained until last year that it was just fine - the costs are staggering.
How can security for a 17-day sporting event cost $1 billion? If you used the money for salaries and hired police officers from everywhere at overtime rates, you could have 111,000 security people working for a month - about 800 to watch each athlete.
Of course, it's more complex. There are border issues and transportation and media and traffic. But $1 billion equals about $60 million per day of the Games. It seems crazy.
The costs were inevitably going to be an embarrassment for the government. The claim that provincial Games spending is strictly limited to $600 million has always been obviously false and contradicted by the auditor general.
The security overrun will enforce even Gordon Campbell to concede the reality.
The overrun, up until the economic slump, could have been covered out of the government's expected big surpluses.
Now a $300-million or $400-million overrun could be enough to push the government into a deficit. That would mean repealing the no-deficit law - the right thing to do, but a big reversal of years of Liberal lectures on the evils of red ink.
And the overrun raises other problems.
Government ministries have been looking for spending that can be cut or put off in light of the plunging economy. Those kinds of changes would be unpopular, but could be pitched as necessary sacrifices.
But that will be undermined if the government is paying a big chunk of cash for Olympic security after years of insisting the budget was adequate.
The governments might try and dance around the issue. If the talks are continuing, they could say the costs are still unknown and would be covered out of a contingency fund.
But having no handle on costs at this point would leave the Liberals open to attack during the election campaign.
It's a tricky problem, in large part because of the timing. Neither the federal Conservatives nor the provincial Liberals want to get stuck with a big bill right now. But neither wants a public spat, either.
And while the problems might be forgotten a year from now, if the Games are a success, the election is May 12. The security problems - and the lack of openness - are going to feature heavily in the NDP campaign.
Footnote: For an example of the scale of Games security, the first major exercise is scheduled for the coming week, involving up to six naval warships, military helicopters and jet fighters and RCMP and emergency personnel.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Blazing a trail with tall wood buildings

Sean Holman over at has an alarming look at serious concerns about the government's push to allow — and encourage — six-storey wood apartment, condo and office buildings.
The safety is being questioned by firefighters; other jurisdictions deny the government's claim that they allow such buildings.
The government says rules will ensure safety. But government also allowed construction of leaky condos — and schools — that brought ruin to thousands of people.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Imagine an independent holding the balance of power in the B.C. legislature

OK, a lot to has to happen. But even the potential election of an independent MLA, as Vaughn Palmer writes about here would be welcome. Party politics, as practised today, has kept a lot of great people from becoming truly effective, representative MLAs.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Harper, maybe Campbell, decide deficits OK

The world has changed. Stephen Harper is acting like a Liberal, leaping into budget deficits and tossing cash around to win votes.
Even Gordon Campbell, who three months ago called deficits a dangerous "addiction," now says B.C. might have to break its balanced budget law next month.
These are signs of how dramatic the economic crunch has become, how badly politicians under-estimated the problems and how worried both leaders are about election prospects.
Harper's budget called for Ottawa to spend $36 billion more than it takes in this year, ending a decade of balanced budgets. (The deficit is forecast at $30 billion for the following year, but that estimate is about as reliable as a $4 watch.)
Spending will jump 10.8 per cent, at a time when inflation is almost non-existent. Revenue will fall by 4.2 per cent, thanks in part to tax cuts.
The rationale is that the government spending will take up some of the slack in the economy. If people are laid off in the forest industry, maybe they will get work on a road infrastructure project.
There is broad agreement among economists that government intervention of this type is necessary in a serious economic slowdown to cushion the impact and hasten the recovery. That almost inevitably means several deficits.
On balance, the government's direction is sound.
But it's the details that should make you nervous.
This is all an inexact science. Few economists will hazard a guess about the real effect of the programs - how much the billions will add to economic output or reduce the jobless rate.
And once the money starts flowing, it's hard to keep track of where it's going or how wisely it's used.
Some stimulus measures make obvious sense. If a bridge is planned for construction in five years, building it now creates jobs and provides needed infrastructure. In five years, the theory goes, the economy will be stronger. The money that would have been spent on the bridge can be used to pay down the debt run up in the deficit years.
Other measures are questionable. The government has promised $160 million in new spending on cultural projects. It's hard to judge the real economic value of that spending - except in make-work terms. And it's harder to see how the government can avoid pressure to keep up the commitment once begun.
And it's committing $3 billion this year to subsidize home renovations and landscaping. That doesn't qualify as smart spending - there is no gain in productivity or long-term benefit. (In contrast, social housing for low-income serniors, the disabled, natives and northerners gets about $500 million this year.)
And some measures are just foolish. The income tax cuts announced in the federal budget aren't targeted to create jobs or improve our long-term situation. While they are nce, they are not going to bring a spending rush to stimulate the economy.
And the $4 billion in foregone revenue over the next three years will now be borrowed, for us - or our children - to pay back at some point. But the cuts will score some political points.
The budget marks quite a transformation for Harper, whose political career has been built on an abhorrence of deficits and rejection of this kind of interventionist role for government.
Gordon Campbell might be having the same kind of conversion. His government made deficit budgets illegal in B.C. Even a few months ago, when he outlined the province's initial response to the meltdown, Campbell pledged the province would remain "a deficit-free zone."
But this week, with the provincial budget less than three weeks away, Campbell told The Globe and Mail he's not sure the government will be able to balance the budget.
That's a big reversal. But probably a wise one - depending, of course, on the prudence and effectiveness of the economic stimulus measures. An ideological aversion to deficits shouldn't become a straitjacket. Families sometimes borrow to get over tough patches; governments have the same opportunity.
Footnote: Politically, I have no idea what the impact will be in the provincial election May 12. Campbell could look a little hypocritical in embracing once unthinkable deficits, if it comes to that. But that's likely better than looking detached from the economic problems affecting so many families and communities.

Monday, January 26, 2009

It's 2009, but roads are still destroying salmon streams

I'll do a column on the topic, but the Times Colonist has a good editorial on a Forest Practices Board report on the number of streams and rivers that are critical fisheries habitat, yet blocked by shoddy road construction. It's appalling, even astonishing, that for all the talk about threats to salmon runs, we still act like it's 1920.
The board, a watchdog on forest practices, has released a number of expert, balanced and useful reports. Take a look a here.