Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Budget '09: Timidity trumps vision

We got a timid provincial budget Tuesday, when boldness would have been welcome.
The good news, for most British Columbians, is that health care spending has been protected. It will increase by about six per cent a year through the budget period.
That's not enough to allow improvements, given population growth and inflation, but things shouldn't get worse.
But except for health, the Liberal government worried too much about keeping deficits small and brief and too little about economic stimulus and the needs of British Columbians.
Across the rest of ministries, taken as a whole, spending will be pretty much frozen in the coming year, rising by about one-half of one per cent.
Finance Minister Colin Hansen hopes that administrative savings - travelling less, or using fewer consultants - can be found to avoid program cuts.
The big guys always say that. The reality is usually different.
The budget for children and families, for example, is effectively frozen, despite increasing demand, rising costs and frustrations about inadequate services now. B.C. Housing spending will be cut by $92 million - about 15 per cent.
Funding for police will rise 5.1 per cent this year, mainly to cover RCMP contract costs, and then be frozen for the following two years. Aboriginal Affairs will lose 18 per cent of its funding this year; Community Services about 17 per cent.
The focus on "belt-tightening," as Hansen described it, is misplaced.
The Liberals' commitment to balanced budgets was laudable in normal times. In this kind of slowdown, it risks further damage to the economy, individuals and communities.
The budget projects a deficit of $495 million and $245 million in the following year before being exactly balanced in 2011/12.
Those projections - for the first time in years - include no forecast allowance. Typically, the government has included at least $750 million as a cushion against the unexpected.
Hansen points to infrastructure spending as the province's preferred form of economic stimulus. But the budget basically included already scheduled projects, plus about $2 billion in new spending as a result of the federal stimulus package.
But at the same time, the government appears to have turned its back on other forms of stimulus that doesn't involve paving or building bridges.
Arts and culture spending, for example, will be cut in half by the 2010 budget year. That means lost jobs, but also lost economic opportunities as festivals and community events fold.
The budget also comes up short on measures specifically aimed at B.C. communities outside the Lower Mainland. (Although that might change, if the infrastructure funding details include money for throne speech commitments in the north, like the Cariboo Connector and new power transmission lines.'
It's also unclear how much this budget will ultimately matter. The government will shut down the legislature before it is voted on. A new version, possibly quite different, will be introduced in September.
The budget is also based on a quick economic recovery for B.C., something that is far from assured.
It was also striking how little this looked like a pre-election budget. There's no theme, no grand vision, just a commitment to health care and caution. It suggests a Liberal election campaign built upon the argument that they are more prudent and trustworthy than the NDP in tough times.
The Liberals, despite Premier Gordon Campbell's frequent policy enthusiasms, have sometimes appeared focused on cutting government rather than in exploiting its potential to make life better for citizens.
And there is a sense in this budget of a government that is somewhat adrift. Past priorities, like the Heartland and children and even climate change, are scarcely mentioned. It portrays a model of governing as a series of administrative functions, with little vision.
Of course, that vision thing can create big problems, as the former NDP government demonstrated with the fast ferries and grand, unmanaged initiatives like the Jobs for Timber Accord. (And the current government demonstrated with the Vancouver convention centre.)
But this was a time for leadership. The government's cautious budget falls short.
Footnote: The government plans to impose a two-year wage freeze when the current public sector contracts expire in a little more than a year. It does not, however, appear to plan significant staff reductions or layoffs.

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