Saturday, September 15, 2012

The cancelled fall sitting bad for business community

David Schreck draws useful attention to a significant effect of the cancellation of the fall sitting of the legislature.
The rules for the return of the PST next April have still not been set, more than a year after a referendum ordered the HST's  repeal.
A fall sitting would allow a full debate of the planned tax regime, and a chance for businesses affected to identify issues.
But instead, according to the Finance Ministry, a proposed version of the legislation won't be introduced until December, and it will be passed in the abbreviated spring session, less than two months before the tax regime changes.
That is neither prudent, nor competent. The tax regime is important, and should be debated. Businesses need more than two months to prepare. The government has had lots of time to get the legislation ready.
And it is notable that the government took 11 months from the time it announced the HST until consumers started paying, but says it needs 19 months to return to the PST.
There are other reasons for a fall sitting. The Liberal government forced legislation through without real debate in the spring, and has admitted the rush produced flawed laws that have to be changed. It would have been better to put those bills off to the fall.
The government always claimed the fall sittings would be used to introduce bills and allow public comments before they were passed in the next session - a good idea.
And Finance Minister Mike De Jong announced this week that more than $1 billion in budget changes would be required because the government's forecasts were wrong. Those spending cuts, or tax increases, should be debated in the legislature, not behind closed doors.
The legislature serves another function. MLAs - of all parties - have the chance to raise issues important to people in their ridings, and ask questions.
But those chances have been increasingly curtailed by the current government.
Between 1992 and 2000, the legislature sat an average of 77 days. Since 2002, that has fallen to 59 days. In the last three years, the legislature has averaged 47 sitting days.
That suggests a government without much of an agenda. And one unwilling to have its policies and actions subjected to debate.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Shelter allowances, and the government as slum landlord

The CBC report on terrible problems in public housing in Vancouver's core is worth reading here.
It's shameful for government to be a slum landlord, taking 57 per cent of people's income for dirty, dangerous accommodation. The CBC reporters went into the BC Housing buildings, run by non-profit Atira Property Management, and found cockroaches and feces and dirty needles, doors with no locks and other problems.
The situation appears to be worst in three downtown buildings BC Housing bought five years ago, promising to renovate them. The promises weren't fulfilled. They haven't been fixed up,and there's not enough money to manage or maintain them properly. (The government announced a federal-provincial reno plan in the spring.)
The report also notes a potential conflict. The buildings are among 13 managed by Atira. Its CEO is Janice Abbott, who is married to BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay. The management contract has never been tendered. (The relationship began after the contract was awarded.)
Housing Minister Rich Coleman says Ramsay plays no role in any decision about Atira. But he's less clear about who does - people who work for Ramsay, or with him?
It's a problematic situation on other levels. Any organization dependent on government funding is reluctant to sound the alarm when things are going terribly wrong, fearing reprisals. But Abbott and Atira are in an even more complex situation, given the personal relationships.
But I wouldn't blame Atira. No one would could run these buildings with inadequate funding. The tenants are, to put it mildly, difficult, many with addictions and mental illnesses, diagnosed or not. The buildings are substandard.
There's another major issue here. Atira's residents are on disability or income assistance. They sign the shelter portion of their allowances over as their rent.
But those allowances are obscenely inadequate. A single person gets $375 a month for housing. As this case demonstrates, landlords - even subsidized nonprofits - can not even provide a desperately grim slum room at that rate. (Families are as badly off. A disabled mom trying to raise two children gets $660 a month for housing. Those kids are going to grow up in a dangerous, crappy apartment in a rundown building.)
The shelter allowances haven't increased since 2007. The Liberal government actually cut them in 2002. Rates today are basically where they were in 1995, despite soaring housing costs over the last 17 years.
Speaking of obscene, it's useful to look at what MLAs think they need for a second home in the capital. (The legislature met for 48 days last year.) MLAs voted to give themselves up to $1,583 a month for housing in Victoria. They think a disabled British Columbian should be able to find housing for $375.
If government wants to fix the problem, a start would be shelter allowances that reflect reality. That in turn would allow landlords - whether nonprofit, like Atira, or private - to cover their costs and offer something above slum-level housing.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Dire warnings of lost jobs because of minimum wage increases proved wrong

When Christy Clark made the long overdue commitment to raise the province's minimum wage, the warnings of job losses came from the usual suspects.
The Canadian Federation of Independent Business predicted 32,760 to 199,560 lost jobs - a catastrophe. (That's based on CFIB's projection of jobs lost for each 10 per cent increase in the minimum wage.)
The Fraser Institute projected job losses of 26,097 to 57,194.
So what happened?
In April 2011, the month before the first of three phased minimum wage increases, 2,273,000 British Columbians were employed. Last month, StatsCan reported 2,323,000 people were working in the province.
You could argue that the jobs were still lost because of the minimum wage - that the number of people working would be even higher if the minimum wage was still frozen at $8, as it was since 2002.
But not very convincingly. B.C. job growth was 2.2 per cent, compared with a national average of 1.3 per cent. If the CFIB's mid-point projections were accurate, then employment in B.C. would have increased 5.5 per cent without the minimum wage hike - more than four times the Canadian average. That's not credible.
Minimum wage opponents could point to the loss of 29,000 part-time jobs in the period. But part-time work was down across Canada, and B.C. gained 79,000 full-time jobs.
The job numbers raise another question. The period covered is basically the same as Clark's time as premier, which has featured a jobs' focus. The increase in employment is better than the Canadian average, and growth in full-time employment is much better - up 4.5 per cent in B.C. compared with 1.9 per cent across Canada. (Part-time job performance was worse than the Canadian average.)
So why isn't Clark getting the credit? (A poll today confirmed her ranking as the second least popular premier in the country.)
Partly, perhaps, because the Liberal government's overall record is still worse than average.
There are still slightly fewer people working in B.C. than there were four years ago, when the recession was beginning to bite. Across Canada, employment has increased by 2.5 per cent in the same period.
The gap is even greater for full-time jobs. B.C. full-time employment is down two per cent; the Canadian average is up 1.9 per cent.
And partly because voters have come to recognize that governments have much less to do with job creation, and job losses, than politicians like to claim.