Friday, November 14, 2003

By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Christy Clark either lacks financial skills, or has chosen to pick a pointless fight with school trustees.
The education minister criticized school boards because financial statements show they finished last year with a collective $145-million surplus.
Parents aren't happier with the school system, she concludes, because school trustees are hoarding money instead of spending it on children. "We allocated an extra $92 million in the last two years to school districts and still parents are telling me they don't see that in improved services in classrooms," Ms. Clark says. "Now we know why. There's $145 million that's been socked away."
I hope she's not serious. Even a cursory look at the facts shows the claim makes little sense.
More than one-third of the surplus is Ms. Clark's doing. With only weeks left in the last fiscal year the province came up with an unexpected extra $50 million for schools. That's great, but to criticize school districts because they didn't rush out to blow the money is ridiculous.
That leaves less than $100 million as the year-end surplus, barely two per cent of spending and hardly a fat cushion for districts trying to avoid deficits.
Ms. Clark should also know that almost all the supposedly surplus money was already committed at year-end. My local school district had, by Ms. Clark's reckoning, a wasteful $2.9-million surplus.
But about $1.2 million was money received too late to be spent effectively within the fiscal year. Another $1.2 million had been saved by schools, through cost-cutting measures, and set aside for needed equipment. Other money has been reserved for purchases that had already been made, even though the invoice haven't been received.
Other school districts have similar logical, prudent explanations.
So how to explain Ms. Clark's puzzlement about why additions to school funding haven't produced any greater parent satisfaction?
The answer is simple. The increases - barely one per cent a year - aren't enough to cover increasing costs, and don't allow districts to maintain existing services to students. The education ministry budget was $4.8 billion in the Liberals' first year in office. It's $4.8 billion today.
In that time teachers' wages - under a government-imposed contract - were raised 7.5 per cent. The government only funded one-third of the increase. Other costs have also outstripped funding increases. So trustees have had to cut programs, close schools and shift to four-day school weeks.
Cost increases - not for new services, but to maintain the existing ones - were greater than the districts' revenue. They made spending cuts. And that's why Ms. Clark is hearing concern from parents.
It's hard to see why Ms. Clark would start this public spat. Trustees, for the most part, have grumbled about inadequate funding, but then tried their best to make them work.
And while effective spending is still seen as important, the political tide appears to be turning toward more funding for schools.
Ontario's former Conservative government reviewed its three-year education funding freeze before the recent election, and found that it resulted in school boards cutting services to students each year. The government pledged to restore the needed money - about $600 million a year - but voters still turfed them out.
In Alberta, Ralph Klein has promised to act on a report from a government commission that called for an immediate $137-million funding increase to hire more teachers, and a $500-million annual spending increase over the next five years (The proposed Alberta standards would call for much smaller classes than in B.C.)
Even in B.C., a legislative committee dominated by Liberal MLAs sounded a warning as this year's budget was being prepared. "The shortage of funds is reaching a critical stage for rural schools and schools-based programs in urban areas," said their report on budget priorities.
If parents are complaining to the minister, she should listen.
And she should acknowledge that it's the government's funding decisions, not some year-end
Step 1: MLAs stand up to enviros. . .
By Paul Willcocks
VICTORIA - Some people are getting excited because Liberal MLAs have been pushing back a bit at protesters by standing up for salmon farming and logging.
Bill Belsey and Rod Visser got the ball rolling, showing up last week at an anti-fish farm protest at a Safeway in a posh Victoria riding. The Forest Action Network wanted the store to quit selling farmed salmon.
Belsey, from Prince Rupert, and Visser, from north Vancouver Island, made their way past the protesters, bought some farmed salmon and came out to defend the industry.
Next Chilliwack MLA Barry Penner showed up at a press conference where the Forest Action Network, the David Suzuki Foundation and three other groups announced they were urging Chinese buyers to boycott B.C. lumber. The groups took a half-page ad in The China Daily and sent emails to 8,000 lumber buyers in China. They say too much clear-cutting continues, old growth is being logged and habitat threatened.
Liar, said Penner, taking the most offence at a claim that logging threatened spotted owls in Penner's own riding.
There's nothing wrong with the MLAs speaking up for their constituents, politely and reasonably. It's ironic, maybe, that Penner showed up uninvited at the environmentalists' announcement. The Liberals keep security tight for their own events to prevent such a happening.
But speaking for their constituents - especially when their jobs are at stake - is part of what effective politicians do.
And unfair campaigns - like the effort to get China to boycott B.C. wood - do cost people jobs.
The boycott call came as Premier Gordon Campbell was in China trying to convince people that wood-frame housing makes sense, and that B.C. is the best supplier.
China's not a big market for B.C. It's the world's second largest wood importer, but uses little of the kinds of lumber we produce. But that's expected to change, and New Zealand and other exporting countries are competing with B.C. to get into the Chinese market.
There's lots of room for debate on B.C. forest practices, and it's legitimate for groups on either side to pressure government.
But their tactics need to show balance and judgment. And nothing in today's B.C. logging practices justifies sacrificing workers, families and communities to an environmental pressure campaign. A boycott call, when resource communities are already struggling, should be a desperate last measure. Instead it looks like a cheap and callous publicity stunt.
Likewise, there is room for debate on salmon farming. The industry has behaved irresponsibly, and government oversight - under the NDP and the Liberals - has been weak.
But the best science indicates that, properly managed and regulated, the industry can produce food safely and efficiently. It provides jobs where there are few other options. Pushing Safeway to stop selling farmed fish puts those jobs at risk; it's not surprising that Belsey and Visser would push back.
Is it part of a co-ordinated strategy? Probably, since MLAs don't do much without checking with their masters. It would be helpful for the Liberals to have MLAs seen publicly as defenders of their constituencies.
But only moderately helpful.
Many people are looking for signs that their MLAs are defenders of their communities within government, and they aren't seeing that. The MLAs, in fairness, often argue that they are raising the issues, behind closed doors.
But what communities see are health care cuts, and more closed stores on main street. They see the Coquihalla slated for sale, or the loss of hundreds of jobs due to the sale of BC Rail.
And while they don't expect MLAs to attack the government, they do expect their concerns to be raised. A Liberal MLA may not be free to oppose the idea of selling BC Rail, but he can argue publicly that the proceeds should all go into an economic development fund for the province's Northwest and Interior.
Here's hoping the trend to outspoken MLAs grows.
Footnote: Rural MLAs should be cheered by a new hire in the premier's office. A new deputy minister - at somewere between $130,000 and $200,000 - has been hired to try and get land use issues resolved more quickly. Jessica McDonald has been working as a consultant for five years in the same area. Her hiring responds to the continued complaints about stalled land use decisions.

Why a higher liquor tax makes sense, and other notes

VICTORIA -- Capital punishment, or random notes from the front:

It's tough to get too enthusiastic about Green leader Adriane Carr's pitch for a junk food tax. (Though it did get her some needed news coverage.) It's too complicated and a hassle for stores, even if it is right to make people pay for their sins.
But B.C. school trustees' call for a tax on alcohol to pay for support services needed by students with fetal alcohol syndrome makes good sense.
We already accept taxes on alcohol. And B.C. could be the first province to do a true needs-based fetal alcohol strategy, helping those already affected and making prevention an obsession. Say the whole deal would cost $50 million a year. A $20 bottle of gin would cost 50 cents more.
The benefits would be huge. Kids with fetal alcohol damage lead immensely difficult lives, often veering from disaster to disaster. Helping them, or making sure that no more children are born damaged, will save lives and save millions.
It's a stunningly simple, painless way to deal with a major social and criminal problem, and save thousands of people from suffering.

The legislature works. Prince George-Omineca Independent MLA Paul Nettleton asked about the recent U.S. ruling that B.C. Hydro's trading arm had done nothing wrong during the California energy crisis. What did the ruling mean, and was there still money owed that California didn't want to pay?
And Energy Minister Richard Neufeld answered, clearly and without spin. Yes, it was a big victory for Hydro. Yes, some $282 million is still owed and in dispute. It was the kind of response you'd give if someone asked you a question.
And for that, Neufeld deserves our collective thanks for showing how the legislature could actually function. (I know, you're wondering why a straight answer qualifies as a great moment. Tune in to Question Period at 2:15 each afternoon and see.)

Things went less well for another minister a few days later. NDP leader Joy MacPhail asked Transport Minister Judith Reid why the government wants to sell B.C. Rail when it's profitable. The good times won't last, Reid said. Forest companies have just been rushing wood out because of the softwood dispute.
"That is creating an unusual situation in the marketplace that is leading to increased traffic on B.C. Rail," she said. "That is not sustainable." It was an easy set-up for MacPhail, who leapt on the prediction of even worse times ahead for the forest industry.

Premier Gordon Campbell is taking a calculated risk in the B.C. Ferries contract talks. Campbell stepped in to say he might not accept an LRB ruling on essential ferry services during a strike. Campbell was sending a message to ferry workers -- be careful about striking, because I can legislate you back anytime, and I'm ready to do it.
The immediate risk is that anytime the premier starts talking about ferry strikes, businesses in ferry-dependent communities suffer. Rumours of a strike are enough to persuade people that a weekend on Saltspring might be risky.
The premier's comments also acknowledge reality. Despite all the effort put into spinning off B.C. Ferries as an independent authority, the public will hold the government accountable when things go wrong.

The crime issue is turning out to be a rough one for the Liberals. The NDP has been pressing the government on when it will keep a campaign promise to transfer 75 per cent of traffic fine revenue to municipalities for increased policing. The Liberals say - rightly - that they only promised to provide the revenue sometime in their first four-year term, and they will. But it's tough to talk about the need to get tough on crime now while putting off a pledge to give communities money they need for policing.

And, finally, the premier's attendance record for Question Periods this session. To date, the legislature has sat for 16 days. Campbell has made it to five, thanks to a busy schedule of trade missions. For more than a century premiers have made it a point to be around while the legislature is sitting - it's only 71 days this year - to lead the government and answer questions from MLAs and people like me. Times have changed.