Friday, October 15, 2004

Jumbo headache for politicians in ski resort plans

VICTORIA - The Jumbo Glacier ski resort is shaping up to be one huge headache for government.
This should have been a good news story for the Liberals. The proposed development, near Invermere, would let people drive to a resort that offered year-round high glacier skiing, an experience available nowhere else in North America. Some 6,000 housing units, 23 lifts, stores, restaurants, lots of jobs. The valley has already been logged and mined and is hardly pristine.
The project certainly fits the government's plans. The Liberals have a junior minister, Sandy Santori, whose only responsibility it to get more resorts developed in B.C.
So you'd expect a big announcement that a $450-million project had just won environmental assessment approval, with the premier and local MLAs on hand in local communities to celebrate the good news, maybe with one of those videos the Liberals make for good news press conferences.
Instead Resource Minister George Abbott revealed the news from the Press Theatre, underground in the legislature. He took pains to distance the government from the project, and to emphasize that the decision on whether it will go ahead is up to the East Kootenay Regional District directors. The land isn't zoned for a resort; if they won't change the zoning, the project is dead.
And the district won't even have to decide until the resort developer and Land and Water BC agree on a management plan and lease agreement, a process Abbott said could take up to a year.
Why the nervousness?
The main reason is the strong local opposition to the project. Opponents point to risks to nearby grizzly bears, although the environmental asset - a huge undertaking - said the problems can be managed, in part through cutting back the size of the development. The resort also threatens the existence of long-standing local businesses, including a heli-ski operation that already operates on the glaciers.
And mostly people in the area would just prefer that the valley stay the way it is. I haven't seen any public opinion polls on the project, but Abbott acknowledged that 90 per cent of the thousands of submissions during the environmental review opposed the project for a variety of reasons.
The number of submissions doesn't count in the environmental review, which is supposed to be fact-based. The report addressed concerns about waste water, the development's size, wildlife conflicts and employment opportunities for First Nations.
But public opinion will count when the project gets to the East Kootenay Regional District directors.
Abbott had barely finished talking when the first icy blasts came from opponents. Meredith Hamstead of the Jumbo Creek Conservation Society called the decision "foolish" and vowed to go global with the battle against the resort.
Abbott did remove one of the opponents' most significant fears. He ruled out using the Significant Projects Streamlining Act to force approval of the Jumbo resort. The law, passed by the Liberals, allows cabinet to over-rule local governments and most boards and commissions to force approval of projects cabinet deems "significant."
Jumbo looked as if it met that test. But Abbott said it doesn't, and the powers won't be used. The decision is up to the regional district.
That should make for a ferocious municipal election campaign in the region next fall, when the project could just be moving to the district for review, with Jumbo as the over-riding issue. (It will also be a big issue in next May's provincial election, despite Abbott's attempt to paint it as a local decision.)
Jumbo is also a test of the government's resort policy. The project was first proposed 13 years ago, and has been working through or waiting on reviews and land use planning exercises ever since.
The fight for approval still looks tough. And if Jumbo fails, it's hard to imagine investors risking much time on plans for any new large-scale resort in rural B.C.
Footnote: Local MLA Wendy McMahon has yet to take a position on the resort, citing the need to wait for the environmental assessment. The riding is a potential swing seat in next May's election, and the resort project is going to be a critical issue for Liberal, NDP and Green candidates.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

On-line betting Liberals' latest gambling betrayal

VICTORIA - I try to be kind, at least in print, but the Liberals look dead sleazy on gambling.
They said gambling was morally wrong, and destroyed families. They promised - in writing - that they would halt the expansion of gambling. Gordon Campbell said if he got the a chance he would go farther, and cut back gambling in B.C.
He's done the opposite. This month alone we get news of another new mega-casino and the introduction of government-backed on-line betting.
"I want to build an economy based on winners, not losers, and gambling is always based on losers,'' Campbell said before the election. "The only way government makes money on gambling is because you lose it.''
Now the government is working as hard as it can to make more British Columbians losers.
Take on-line gambling, introduced this week with no public announcement. Apparently that long walk to a lottery outlet was stopping too many people from losing their money by betting on sports events. There are 4,500 places to buy lottery tickets in the province, after all, one for every 700 adults.
So the government decided to let people bet on games from their homes, offering a slick Internet service.
Everyone changes their mind on some things, based on new information or changing circumstances. Governments can be expected to break promises, to abandon policies.
But we're talking about abandoning principles. Campbell and the Liberals opposed a big government gambling operation because it was wrong. They said it created gambling addicts, hurt families and turned people into losers.
It's hard to trust anyone who will trade principles for money.
That's what it looks like the Liberals have done. They haven't claimed some revelation that led them to decide it was all right to take money from the desperate, gullible and addicted. They haven't justified the abandonment of principle. They've just gone ahead, pushing slots on communities, working to recruit more people as gamblers, and looked for ways to increase the amount the average citizen loses.
The latest tactic is Internet gambling, something that use to be terrible when private companies in some offshore haven ran the games. Now it's the government running the game, and everything is fine. Gambling on the Internet is just like banking online, BC Lotteries says.
The government's new Internet gambling venture lets people bet on sports events, without leaving their homes. In the interests of responsibility, people are only allowed to lose up to $70 a week on line. That can't hurt, can it? The government hopes that within a couple of years people will be losing $10 million a month online.
You used to have to make a choice before you could gamble - drive to a casino, or stop at a lottery ticket kiosk. The person with a problem could avoid temptation. No more; the government is bringing it into their homes.
I'm not a moralist, and defend peoples' right to make bad choices.
But there is something reprehensible about a government that knows taking money from gullible or desperate gamblers is wrong, and is hurting families, but does it anyway.
When the Liberals were elected, promising to stop the expansion of gambling, there were 2,400 slot machines. They will have more than doubled that number by the end of the year. The government doesn't think enough of us are gamblers, even though about 1.9 million British Columbians place bets through the BC Lottery Corp. each month. They want to use advertising to recruit another 200,000 gamblers over the next three years. If it all works they'll pluck $1 billion from the public's pockets, twice as much as when the took over.
And they know it's wrong, but do it anyway.
We all make mistakes, and some of them have bad consequences. But this isn't a mistake, it's a plan. A plan that, as Gordon Campbell said, sets out to turn British Columbians into losers.
Footnote: The government's leap into Internet gambling comes after it banned charity raffle ticket sales on the Internet, even though established hospitals and other agencies had sold tickets online for several years. It's illegal for a charity to sell raffle tickets on the Internet; it's legal for government to run a betting shop.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Children and families needs share of surplus

VICTORIA - The voices of children aren't easily heard in our society, especially the thousands of children in foster care, or in families struggling to get by.
That's what makes Jane Morley's reminder that those children, along with the families of the mentally disabled, shouldn't be forgotten when it comes time to spend B.C.'s surplus.
Morley is the child and youth officer for B.C., the watchdog charged with ensuring we do right by the people served by the ministry of children and families.
The Liberals' New Era has been bad for those people, those children lugging their few belongings from foster home to foster home, or the families desperate for help in caring for a disabled child. Budgets have been chopped, and the ministry has been plagued by mismanagement and half-baked plans.
Now B.C. plans on a surplus of more than $1 billion this year, and even more in the next two years.
Everyone has ideas on how to spend it. Cut taxes. Get real per-student education funding back to where it was three years ago. Shorten waiting lists. Build roads.
"The advantages of tourism promotion, infrastructure enhancements and increased law enforcement resources, along with many other initiatives new and old, have been drawn to our attention by a multitude of thoughtful and articulate interest groups and public officials," Morley noted in a recent comment piece.
But children and families - or at least the most vulnerable ones - are often unheard in the competition for public attention and money.
The government's budget consultation questionnaire gives people a checklist of possible ways of using the surplus. The list doesn't include restoring cuts to the ministry, or improving the lot of children and families.
"In the competition for shares of what are always limited public resource (even with a budget surplus), the voices of children and youth are not loud: they need champions to ensure that they are not forgotten when scarce resources are allocated," Morley says.
The children's ministry has seen its budget cut by $145 million since the Liberals were elected. (Even though in opposition the Liberals, including Gordon Campbell, said the ministry didn't have enough money to do the required job.).
It's time to put a significant sum back into the ministry, Morley says.
"The existence of a surplus is an opportunity for the government to provide the up-front resources necessary to achieve its goal of transforming a child welfare system that has been in place for decades and which is not easily amenable to change," she says. Fund the cost of changing the way services are delivered. Provide money to figure out what works. Pay for the move towards local control, and get the money into communities so they can decide what needs to be done.
"Real transformations do not come about easily or cheaply," she says. "The government should now spend some of the surplus that has become available on the children and youth in British Columbia."
Morley isn't alone. The BC Association for Community Living has also asked the government to reverse the cuts to ease a "crisis" in services for disabled adults.
The association has been a big defender of the government, keen to see the transition to an independent authority and willing to try and cope with reduced budgets.
Executive director Laney Bryenton says things have just gone too far. Waiting lists for services are growing, and families - including some elderly parents caring for adult children with mental disabilities - are stretched to the breaking point.
It's time to push for more money, she says, or at least the return of the money that was cut - and helped create the surplus.
Morley gets the last word.
"The voices of children and youth are not loud," she said in a report earlier this year. "They need champions to ensure that they are not forgotten when scarce resources are allocated."
Consider it a personal challenge.
Footnote: The money available to support children and families has been cut by eight per cent since the election. At the same time, inflation has pushed up the cost of providing most service by up to 10 per cent. All in a ministry Campbell used to argue was under-funded by the NDP.