Friday, September 19, 2008

Premier picks school in his riding for big benefit

The scent of old-style pork barrel politics is hanging over the premier's office.
The government has decided it would be a good idea to see schools threatened with closure used as community centres.
The five lucky schools selected for the pilot project would not only be spared the risk of closure, but get big money for upgrades and new facilities.
Typically, for Premier Gordon Campbell, the first step was a snappy name - Neighbourhoods of Learning. (Community schools by another name.)
Next, a $30-million budget.
But then, the obvious questions. Where should these pilot projects be located? Where students and communities need them? In the places school trustees decide are priorities? Nope.
Two of the three schools announced as pilot projects are in Gordon Campbell's riding. Two rural schools that will participate are still to be chosen.
One of the schools in the premier's riding, General Gordon Elementary, only made the list because Campbell said that's where he wanted the money to go.
It wasn't purely a move to steer money to a school in his constituency. Campbell said the parents there had pitched the idea for the community schools and deserved a reward for their initiative.
But the government's had already signalled its nervousness about the premier's intervention.
Education Minister Shirley Bond - always a loyal trooper - tried to maintain Campbell hadn't been involved at all in the decision to award the big money to two schools in his riding.
Vancouver school district trustees had raised the need for upgrades to General Gordon, she said.
But the school district contradicted Bond.
The superintendent said the district had raised concerns about a number of older schools in Vancouver that were threatened by the need for seismic upgrades.
The premier, not the school district, said General Gordon should jump to the front of the queue as part of the Neighbourhoods for Learning pilot. He had been lobbied by the parents, who had also noted their in with the top guy in pushing the Education Ministry to see things their way.
There are a lot of schools in the Lower Mainland and on the Island that need upgrading to keep children safe in the event of an earthquake. Some of them might close because of the problem. The government has leaned toward building smaller, cheaper schools.
Should the fact that parents' advisory council can get a meeting with the premier decide where the money goes?
Rural communities that have faced closures, long bus rides for kids and lost schools might have liked the chance to make their case for a larger share of the money. Though that could still come when the remaining pilot projects are announced - especially if the parents can get a meeting with an influential cabinet minister.
Too cynical? Maybe.
But it does look much look who you know matters more than what you need to give kids and communities a boost. Campbell's riding - Vancouver Point Grey - is among the most affluent in the province.
Meanwhile, out in Langley, a 5,000-seat arena and community centre is being built at a cost of $56 million. Great news for the community.
Especially because almost one-third of the money is coming from the provincial government. When he was forests minister, Rich Coleman decided to spend $15 million of forestry money on the arena. It would use wood laminate beams and be a great marketing tool, he said.
But the industry could likely suggest better uses for $15 million than an arena in the minister's riding. Unemployed forest workers - some 12,000 jobs have been lost in the last year - certainly could.
What should worry supporters is that neither of these were missteps Campbell would have allowed a few years ago. The Liberals risk becoming the government they once ran against.
And it's not hard to remember what happened to that government.
Footnote: The whole school closure issue is a problem for the government. It had been pushing school districts to be aggressive in closing and selling schools to pay for new facilities for the last six years. Now, after about 170 schools have been closed, a policy flip-flop calls for new uses and a moratorium on closures. It's sensible, but erratic.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

'Surprise' surplus sign of bad budgeting

Surprise. Three months into the fiscal year and the provincial government has discovered that it underestimated revenues by about $1.2 billion.
Well, not really a surprise. More the norm by now.
The Liberals have made it standard operating procedure to introduce and have the legislature vote on budgets that project modest surpluses.
Then, like an exotic dancer, the finance minister slowly reveals the real numbers over the course of the year.
The modest surplus turns into several billion dollars, which the government can do with as it pleases.
Generally, that means paying down the debt. But with an election coming next May, expect some goodies out of this year's slush fund - maybe even another carbon rebate next spring.
This can all seem a little abstract, I know. But the bad budgeting has consequences.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation points out that as a result the government is collecting more money from you than it actually needs. Last year's surplus of $2.1 billion - after about $1 billion in last-minute spending - would have let the government cut income taxes by 15 per cent for a year or chop a point off the provincial sales tax.
Or, alternately, the surplus means the government has money it could have allocated for services that people need. The B.C. Association for Community Living asked this week why so many children with disabilities are on waiting lists for services if the government has more than $1 billion extra.
And anyone waiting for surgery will wonder why more of that money isn't addressing health-care issues.
Some of it will. Finance Minister Colin Hansen's first quarter update included the $120 million the government has already committed to address health authority underfunding. More is likely on the way. (Again, welcome, but why not do it right the first time so health authorities can plan properly?)
It's certainly better to err on the side of caution. But this goes beyond prudence. The surplus for this year, budgeted at $800 million in the budget, is already forecast to be more than $2 billion.
The "surprise" surplus comes even though Hansen also warned that economic growth will be slower than the government expected this year and next.
The ministry's panel of outside economists had forecast growth at 2.8 per cent in 2008 when the budget was being prepared; they've knocked that back to 2.1 per cent; they pared the estimate for next year from 3.0 per cent to 2.7 per cent.
That's still healthy growth. But not for everyone. The quarterly update includes bad news for hard hit forest communities. The expected harvest from Crown land has been cut by 12 per cent since the budget was prepared. Those communities too will be wondering why some of that surplus isn't coming their way to help deal with the crisis.
The Liberals mostly used the surpluses as a way to reduce the debt. Collect more than you really need, spend less than you have and then end the year with no option but paying down debt. That's not a bad thing, but B.C.'s debt is manageable and the public - according to the annual budget consultations - wants the priority to be better services, not tax cuts or debt reduction.
The government has also used of the money for year-end spending - setting up a housing fund, sending the $100 carbon dividend cheques to every British Columbian (and about 18,000 people who are no longer living in the province).
That's probably what lies ahead, with the election coming in May. Hansen said the surplus gives the government "flexibility" to cut taxes, or spend more on programs people want.
Or even to send out rebate cheques again. They'll decide, but because the fall sitting of the legislature has been cancelled, the decision will be rubber stamped next spring.
It's really not a good way to run a government, or a business, or a family's finances. If you work with bad forecasts, you make decisions based on faulty information.
In the private sector, that can land you in trouble.
Footnote: A budget consultation flyer - that will look much like a Liberal campaign brochure - is being mailed to every home in the province, allegedly to allow you to comment on the budget options. Based on past practice, the comments stand a good chance of being ignored; one year, the government only looked at 10 per cent of the forms.