Thursday, September 17, 2009

Campbell's politics stalling federal stimulus money

I thought writing about infrastructure stimulus spending would be dull. Then along came Shirley Bond.
B.C. has done a bad job of getting federal stimulus money out into communities.
And the reasons for the delays are all about appearances. That’s what keeping B.C. communities from getting some $450 million in federal funds for stimulus projects.
The New Democrats focused on the issue in question period this week.
Bond, the transportation minister, took the questions.
It was amazing, like she was doing an impression of Tina Fey doing an impression of Sarah Palin. The answers had little to do with the questions, but gosh darn, look at al the great things going on thanks to federal funding, said Bond,
The reality is that eight provinces have signed agreements to claim their share of the $4 billion in stimulus infrastructure money the federal government announced in January.
Not B.C. That’s about $450 million waiting to be put to work creating jobs and improving infrastructure across the province.
Back in July, Community Development Minister Bill Bennett said municipalities could hear within a week about projects to be funded under the program. Time was of the essence, he said. The government had “the pedal to the metal.”
Two months later, they’re still waiting.
The problem is political. The federal infrastructure fund requires matching contributions. For municipal projects, the total cost has to be split equally three ways.
For provincial projects, it’s a 50-50 contribution from the province and Ottawa. (On that basis, municipal projects deliver the greatest stimulus bang for the buck. The $450 million in federal money is matched by another $900 million from local and provincial governments.)
The province is OK with all that. But Premier Gordon Campbell has been trying to cut a special deal for B.C.
Funding has been frozen while he tries to persuade Prime Minister Stephen Harper to do a special agreement so B.C. can call its contribution a capital investment, rather than operating spending.
It’s a lame reason for stalling help for.
Either way, the money is added to the provincial debt and taxpayers will have to pay the interest in future.
But Campbell wanted a deal to keep the commitments out of this year’s operating expenses, so the deficit would look smaller.
Politically, that matters. Campbell promised during the election campaign that the $495-million deficit was easily achievable, without deep cuts.
The deficit is now at $2.8 billion. The province’s share of stimulus funding could push it higher, or bring even deeper cuts to health care and other services.
That would be embarrassing for Campbell and the Liberals. But it would mean nothing to the people of British Columbia. Call it operating, call it a capital expense – the province is still spending the money and it will still be added to the debt. There is no real difference.
Campbell’s unsuccessful attempts to cut a face-saving side deal could be costly.
The Union of B.C. Municipalities works at hard at staying friendly with the provincial government. But they’ve spoken out about the stalled infrastructure money.
The worries aren’t just about delays. The federal money could be entirely lost.
The Harper government wanted quick job creation. So the federal contribution only comes for work completed by March 31, 2011.
That was 26 months away when the program was launched. But now many communities are heading into the slow winter construction season. Some important projects can’t be considered, because there just is enough time to complete them.
Other federal spending has been flowing.
But still, $450 million is a lot of money to leave on the table. Prince George, on a per capita basis, could expect $8 million. Trail, $900,000. Kelowna, $12 million.
Those communities – and hundreds of others - could do a lot with that their share.
The money seems to be tied up for just one reason – the Liberal government’s political considerations.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Question period morphs into Saturday Night Live

I'm watching Shirley Bond channel Tina Fey doing Sarah Palin. You too can watch question period here.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Liberals failing the critical competence test

The last NDP government blew up in spectacular fashion, tossed out in 2001 for a long list of sins.
Two were critical. The public decided the New Democrats were both untrustworthy and incompetent. (Rightly, I would add.)
It’s early days, but the Liberals look to be at risk of the same damning judgments.
Trust is shot. An Ipsos Reid poll found 72 per cent of British Columbians believe the Liberals intentionally mislead the public about the province’s finances during the election campaign. Only 10 per cent believed Gordon Campbell’s claim that he really thought the February budget was attainable.
And competence looks shakier by the day.
Take the decision to slash grants to parent advisory councils. Education Minister Margaret MacDiarmid revealed the cuts after a photo op where she announced $500,000 in Olympic spirit funding for schools. The cut affects every school in the province, but hits hardest in areas where PACs have the toughest time raising money. It matters to tens of thousands of parents.
MacDiarmid dropped the $7.6 million cut from support - from $20 to $10 per student - as an afterthought.
That’s not competent, it’s sloppy and rude.
Three days later, Gambling Minister Rich Coleman defended the cut. (The money came from gambling grants, so he was involved.)
Read carefully his quote from the Times Colonist. “I haven’t had a bunch of blowback from the PACs since the minister mentioned on Tuesday they would probably get half,” said Coleman. (Any group affected by cuts should note that. Without “blowback,” you’re forgotten.)
But what’s really striking is the phrase “probably get half.” The education minister has announced the cut. Parent councils are planning reductions in help for kids and schools. And Coleman is suggesting the decision hasn’t really been made.
It’s not an isolated stumble. The government tried to renege on $20 million in grants to non-profits that had received written promises of three-year funding.
Campbell defended the decision. The letters were’?t real contracts, he said.
And then Coleman restored the money because, he agreed, the commitments were in fact real.
After MacDiarmid cut $110 million from school maintenance funding, some districts said they would have to cancel projects aimed at meeting the province’s 2010 deadline for becoming carbon neutral.
No problem, said John Yap, the junior minister for climate action. They can have until 2012. His staff quickly contradicted the claim, saying the 2010 deadline is still in place.
Which raises three questions. Is a climate action minister - with extra pay, staff and all that - really needed? If so, shouldn’t he know the basics? And how much thought has really gone into this carbon neutral by 2010 edict?
None of this inspires confidence on the competence front. Neither did the first couple of days in the legislature after last week’s break.
The NDP used question period to ask about the elimination of $130,000 funding to B.C. School Sports. The non-profit does great work organizing regional and provincial high school sports events. The big volunteer contribution means the money goes a long way. And the government eliminated all its funding.
It’s a bad decision. And it ended up being defended, badly, by three cabinet ministers: MacDiarmid, the education minister; Ida Chong, junior minister of healthy living and sport; and Mary McNeil, junior minister for the Olympics and ActNow BC. (Chong stumbled badly in answering questions, or more accurately not answering, about a 27-per-cent cut to funding for children’s sports.)
Three ministers, all with a role in youth sports. That does not suggest competence, or concern about the taxpayers’ money. Cut any one of them and you would save enough money to restore funding for B.C. School Sports.
What it all suggests is a government in which a few people are making decisions - on new taxes, or program cuts or climate action - on the fly and in isolation.
Footnote: It’s a bumpy start for new Liberal MLAs. First they’re told, without any opportunity for input, to support a new harmonized tax they opposed in the election campaign. Then they’re called on to defend cuts that hurt parents, children and schools that even the ministers can’t keep straight.