Thursday, February 17, 2011

Progress Board reports show Liberal record barely average

By the numbers, the Liberal decade is looking distinctly average.
Not my numbers, but the report card from the B.C. Progress Board, established by Premier Gordon Campbell in 2002 to report independently on the government’s performance using quantifiable measurements.
Based on 21 key indicators set up by that board — initially chaired by David Emerson — it’s been a disappointing decade.
The board compares B.C. with other provinces. The goal, it said in the first report, was to see this province first or second in Canada in key measurements.
It hasn’t happened. In fact, the province has slid backward in more categories than it has improved.
B.C. ranks fourth in economic output for capita, the same spot it was in the board’s first report in 2002. It’s second in real average hourly wage, also unchanged from the NDP years. (The data was generally two years old.)
Employment has improved — up from fifth to fourth in the percentage of adults with jobs.
But in personal income, B.C. has fallen from third to fourth. In productivity — a key measure — it has fallen from fifth to seventh among provinces. Exports per capita have fallen from seventh to ninth.
For a government that touted its commitment to a stronger economy, it’s a shoddy performance.
On balance, the economic measurements show a slight decline from the final NDP years.
The record is equally bleak on management of the government’s finances, according to the Progress Board. The 2002 report, using the most recent numbers available, found B.C. had the second lowest level of taxpayer-supported debt in the country. The 2010 report found it has slipped one place, to third lowest — and that’s before the latest budget. (That’s not necessarily bad, if the debt is prudently undertaken and will pay future dividends.)
B.C. had the second-lowest tax rate for big earners back then; now it has the third lowest.
The province has moved from seventh to fifth in per-capita tax burden, a positive from the board’s perspective. But the 2002 report found B.C. had the third-lowest deficit, in relation to GDP, among provinces. The 2010 report says B.C. has fallen to fifth.
The province is doing better in terms of graduating people from high school and research and development spending. B.C. ranked sixth for that kind of investment in the 2002 report; now it’s third. Investment in fixed assets has increased, and the province has jumped from eighth to third among provinces for in-migration. People are moving here.
But university completion is unchanged from a decade ago and the province has gone backward in terms of developing science, engineering and tech workforces.
Sorry about all the numbers. Two things should stand out. First, on the board’s economy, innovation and education indicators, the province improved in six measures, went backward on seven and stayed the same on three.
It is a middling performance. A little worse than other provinces, but basically simply average.
Second, that’s not what the Progress Board wanted. The first report said that by 2010 B.C. should be first or second in expanding GDP per capita, personal income and jobs. It’s fourth, as it was when the Liberals took office.
The Progress Board looked at social and health measurements too. B.C. improved by two measures — cancer mortality and crime. We’re best in the country for cancer survival rates; the crime improvement is a less impressive move, from tenth to eighth.
But B.C. went backward on three other social and health measures. It has fallen from the sixth-worst province for poverty to last. Infant health, as measured by low birth weight, has gone from second to fifth place.
And in greenhouse gas emissions per person, supposedly a priority, B.C. has gone from third best to fourth best.
Overall, it’s a profoundly average record. For all the brave promises and enthusiastic spin, the Campbell government did no better — maybe slightly worse — than other provinces, based on its own independent peformance review.
There’s no disgrace in being average. But there’s not much to celebrate, either.
And it’s interesting that none of the Liberal leadership candidates have said they are aiming higher.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Budget shows a drifting government

The weirdest moment in this year's budget lockup came when Finance Minister Colin Hansen was asked about the 15-per-cent income tax cut Premier Gordon Campbell proposed - and then withdrew - in the fall.
Didn't it now seem reckless to have proposed knocking $800 million off revenues when the province's debt will hit $60 billion by 2013, he was asked?
No, Hansen said. There were lots of savings the government could have made in ministry budgets - cutting things like travel - to offset the tax reduction.
So, why didn't it? Why wouldn't a cost-cutting government grab those savings anyway?
Basically, the budget is like one of those fake streets they build to shoot cowboy movies. Look around the back, and there is not much there.
The deficit is projected at $1.3 billion for the current fiscal year, which ends March 31, and is to shrink in the next two years before a return to balanced budgets in 2013.
Spending will increase for health - up 6.2 per cent in the coming year and about three per cent in each of the next two.
But most ministries will see their budgets cut in the coming year and frozen for the two following years.
Revenues are forecast to increase, with the HST and personal income tax leading the way.
But none of the numbers can be relied on too heavily.
The main aim in drafting the budget was to create a lot of room for the new premier.
So there is $950 million - about the same as the budget for law enforcement, jails and the courts - in various contingency funds in next year's budget. That's money the new premier can use to expand programs, cut taxes or bring in a balanced budget right away.
There are the easy cuts, according to Hansen, in ministry budgets that could deliver a lot more swag for the new leader to spend.
And it's likely revenues have been underestimated, as they were in the past year, given still more spending.
But while there was a lot of emphasis on creating political room for the new premier, there wasn't much on addressing the needs of British Columbians today.
The ministry of children and families, despite all its problems, faces a three-year funding freeze. The income assistance budget, despite rates that leave thousands of people with disabilities living in poverty, is also frozen.
There's no additional investment in universities or science, even though the government has made much of the need for innovation and a skilled workforce.
There was a lot of focus on debt in the budget lockup. The string of deficits, big B.C. Hydro capital spending plans and a huge infrastructure spending spree in the Lower Mainland - transit and roads and a new stadium roof and convention centre - are adding billions to the province's debt.
That's not necessarily bad. The infrastructure spending created jobs and the alternative to running deficits would have been deep spending cuts during the recession.
But the province's total debt will climb from $38 billion in 2008 to $60 billion in 2013. That's almost $13,000 per person. Interest payments will reach $2.9 billion a year by 2013; more if interest rates spike.
Debt is still at reasonable levels compared to the province's total economy. But the growth is extraordinary and while all British Columbians will share the obligation, it's unclear whether all will benefit from the spending.
The most striking thing about the budget was what was missing. Even with a leadership change, you would expect a mature government to have some policy goals and priorities that it would continue to fund over the next three years.
That was simply absent from a budget that looked more like a speadsheet exercise than an actual plan.
And so far, none of the Liberal leadership candidates have offered a vision or policy program that would fill the vacuum.
Footnote: The budget also faces a rewrite if voters reject the HST in the coming referendum. Hansen was vague about plans or costs, but hinted that unravelling the HST and returning to the PST could take longer than many people anticipate.