Friday, November 28, 2008

Global crisis, but B.C.'s got some breathing room

So what does the big financial crisis mean for the B.C. government - tax increases, spending cuts, deficits?
None of the above, at least for this year and next.
But the budget that will come down in 2010 - the first for the new government to be elected in May - might pose some problems.
It's a mark of the ludicrous conservatism of the Liberals' budgeting that despite the worst economic woes in almost 80 years - and unplanned tax cuts - the surplus this year will still be larger than the government projected.
Tax revenues will be below budget by some $423 million, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said as he released the latest quarterly report. But $350 million of that is because of the cuts Premier Gordon Campbell announced last month in response to the slowdown.
And despite all the turmoil, all other revenue is expected to be up four per cent over the budget forecast. A manager in the private sector would get into trouble for that sort of sandbagging.
Next year is also probably OK. The Liberals, to their considerable credit, provide three-year financial plans. The budgeted revenue figure for 2009/10 is $39.9 billion. There are certainly some risks, but revenue for this year is now expected to be $38.9; a 2.6-per-cent increase next year is within reach
And the plans provide for an overall 2.5 per cent spending increase - and a 5.9 per cent increase in health spending the health budget for this year. There was also a $1.1-billion cushion built into the budget forecast.
All in, the Liberals should be able to table a pre-election budget without significant spending cuts, tax increases or a deficit. By the 2010 budget, things look tighter. Next year, remember, the projection is for a 2.6-per-cent revenue increase. But the budget calls for a four-per-cent revenue jump in the following year. That might be a stretch.
On the spending side, there is a four-per-cent increase for health, education and advanced education. That's tight, given the pressures for more spending. Still, the budget includes $1.1 billion in contingencies and cushions.
There's room for the government to shuffle things around and stay in the black, but it could be tight.
Of course, it's questionable whether we should be quite so fixed on deficits. B.C. has a law that bars deficit budgets (though doesn't have any effect if a government budgets for a surplus, but ends up with a deficit). The rationale is understandable. Spending more than you take in can become a bad habit; the NDP governments through the 1990s showed that. But Stephen Harper is prepared to run federal deficits for a year or two because of the current economic crisis, and he's hardly an ideological bedmate of Glen Clark's.
If things spiral downward, by 2010 or 2011 the provincial government might face some tough choices.
Without tax increases - never a great idea in a recession - serious spending cuts might be needed to avoid a deficit. Who really wants to tell a senior she can't get a hip replacement, or parents of a disabled child that therapy has to wait, because of an ideological opposition of deficits?
There is nothing wrong with borrowing some money in tough times, as long as you pay it back as quickly as possible. The alternative could be a longer recession and more losses for B.C families.
Deficits might not be necessary. But it will be interesting to see if either the Liberals or the New Democrats will acknowledge the possibility. The backdrop for all this is the economy as an issue in the coming election. A Mustel Group poll released this week found the Liberals and NDP effectively tied. It also showed the economy was named as the main issue facing the province by 40 per cent of respondents - a huge jump.
Footnote: A month after Gordon Campbell's pledge to curb any avoidable spending in response to the economic crunch, nothing has happened. Most noticeably, taxpayers are still paying for a massive ad blitz aimed largely at bolstering the Liberal's re-election hopes. British Columbians asked for the ads, Finance Minister Colin Hansen said this week.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hidden donations from gambling industry to Liberals?

Is there a link between political donations and the Liberals' decision to break their promise to halt gambling expansion in the province?
After all, Gordon Campbell was clear - gambling created "losers" and destroyed families. Kevin Krueger said government gambling was immoral, fuelling crime, violence, suicides and family disintegration.
But once elected, the government went on a gambling spree, including mini-casinos with VLTs in smaller communities across the province, online betting and plans to recruit new gamblers each year and increase the average losses per person.
San Holman reveals some fascinating information about the industry's hidden donations to the Liberals here.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Forcing homeless people into shelter

Rich Coleman is musing about finding a way to force homeless people into shelters when the weather makes life on the street dangerous. The media interest was raised after a woman who had declined shelter burned to death in her shopping cart while trying to stay warm.
It's an issue worth considering, but as Coleman notes, there are big legal and ethical issues and nothing will happen soon.
Rather than mess about with complicated legal questions, Coleman could address the issue now. The woman who died chose to stay on the street in part because going to a shelter would have meant abandoning her shopping cart and all her worldly possessions. It would not be hard or costly to have secure outdoor space for carts at shelters, staffed by a minimum wage worker making the transition from the streets. Other homeless people chose a doorway because available shelters won't take their pet or allow couples to stay together, or because the available spaces are just too chaotic, noisy and theft-prone.
Making improvements to address those problems would be fairly cheap and easy.
Also, Coleman talks about forcing people into "beds," when in many cases the reality is a mat on a floor in a large room. That's better than nothing, but more accuracy in language would help in dealing with a complex issue.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

From Russian assassins to the Basi-Virk trial

I've been reading about Vera Zasulich, who invented terrorism as we know it when she shot the governor of St. Petersburg in 1878.
And I'm amazed at the straight line between 19th century Russia under Tsar Alexander II, the U.S. detention camp at Guantanamo Bay and B.C. Supreme Court.
My reading tends to books grabbed fairly randomly from the new arrivals at the library or the well-selected sale offerings at Munro's Book Store here. One advantage is the serendipitous discovery of connections. (The disadvantage is the lack of context that comes with random readings.)
The book is Angel of Vengeance by Ana Siljak. It's about Zasulich and Russia in a time of possibilities - socialism, serfdom, religion, the tsar, a big bureaucracy and youth, mostly well-off, dreaming of change.
Tsar Alexander had a liberal bent, in part because revolution seemed a threat. Legal reform was important, he decided.
"Let truth and mercy reign in the law courts," he proclaimed in 1864. Courts would treat all Russians equally, "from the person of the highest to that of the lowest rank." Juries would decide cases and the system would be open to all.
Then Vera Zasulich shot the governor. A great defence lawyer painted her as a person driven to try and stop state cruelty. (The governor had abused a political prisoner.)
The jury found her not guilty, followed by celebrations in the streets and much official anger, in part because there had been other legal setbacks in the effort to fight subversion.
The justice minister had a solution. No more trials for accused assassins or terrorists. New military tribunals would hear those cases, under new rules.
Alexander initially rejected the proposal as too extreme. But within months, he caved. The military tribunals took over these cases.
Which is exactly what George W. Bush and the U.S. government did after 9/11. A new class of criminals was created, with few rights. A parallel legal system was established. Suspects could be held for years without charges; evidence obtained by torture was accepted; rights were ignored.
Canadian Omar Khadr, captured by the U.S. as a 15-year-old in Afghanistan, is the last Guantanamo prisoner from a western country.
From the tsar's besieged Russia to America today. Who would think?
The line can be stretched a little farther. Alexander's goal wasn't fair treatment of political prisoners. He believed that an accessible, consistent and fair justice system would stabilize society. People might not always like the decisions, but if justice was more or less equitable, they could count on their rights being protected.
Which leads to British Columbia today.
Specifically, to the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver, where Dave Basi, Bobby Virk and Aneal Basi and a clutch of lawyers are still arguing over the evidence in the B.C. Rail corruption case.
It has been almost five years since the police raided the legislature and seized evidence. The allegations are serious, for the three men, all former Liberal political appointees, and the government.
But more than five years after the publicly owned railway was sold, there are no answers.
It's obviously unfair to the three accused. (And there is no evidence they or their lawyers have delayed the trial; Justice Elizabeth Bennett has been critical of the special prosecutor for failing to follow disclosure rules. Now a last-minute RCMP legal intervention threatens more delays.)
And it's unfair to the public, heading toward next May's election with no answers about a scandal that began before the 2005 campaign.
The case is a symptom. The courts have become too expensive and too slow to be a realistic option for most Canadians looking for justice. They are left to fend for themselves, unable to count on the right a fair hearing and impartial judgment.
Tsar Alexander would have considered it a broken justice system.
Footnote: If money is no object or a case truly significant, the system delivers sound judgments.
But for most people, seeking redress when they are wronged or facing a minor criminal charge, the costs of presenting the case - say $8,000 a day for a lawyer's appearances in court - tilts the balance hugely to those with the money to wear down the other side.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Province cuts leaky school deal, but leaves leaky condo owners outside

The Globe and Mail reported the government has reached some sort of secret compensation deal over hundreds of leaky schools. But the government's willingness to accept a confidentiality clause leaves leaky condo owners wondering if they should be getting the same compensation. A Times Colonist editorial editorial looks at the issue.