With 11 months to redefine itself for voters, Premier Christy Clark’s B.C. Liberal government has dialed back its boasting about four consecutive balanced budgets, and has begun creating the impression of a minor spending spree.
It picked up with a series of education funding announcements. First Education Minister Mike Bernier unveiled an increase to the province’s “fix-it fund,” as he calls it.
This is not to be confused with the annual “facilities grant” provided to school districts each year, or the carbon tax collected from schools and hospitals that is then doled out for approved energy upgrades.
The “fix-it fund” was $20 million last year, but this past March, Bernier announced it was increased to $40 million, and called for districts to propose roof, electrical, heating and other projects that could be done by March 2017.
After going through the submissions, Bernier announced in mid-May that the fund is up to $45 million. The increase is not new money, he assured reporters. That means it’s taken from the next two years of the three-year education budget.
Hence my reference to “creating the impression” of a spending spree. Or perhaps Cowichan Valley NDP MLA Bill Routley’s favourite expression captures it best: “jiggery-pokery.”
Then Bernier found another $25 million for struggling school district operations, by returning “administrative savings” his ministry had required from districts for the second year running. With some school districts charging for bus service or cutting it out entirely, the “administrative savings” argument wasn’t doing so well.
The B.C. NDP ran its last election campaign on the assertion that the 2013 budget wasn’t going to be balanced, despite a run of land sales to stop the flow of red ink left from buying the province out of the harmonized sales tax.
But B.C. Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong did balance the books, with the help of a temporary tax increase on incomes of $150,000 and up.
Then came last year’s federal election, and balanced budgets got a bad name. Justin Trudeau’s Liberals insisted the Stephen Harper Conservatives were running a hidden deficit and starving us into recession. Trudeau promised “modest” deficits of no more than $10 billion a year to stimulate the economy.
Federal NDP leader Thomas Mulcair promised to balance the budget while still providing national daycare and other big-ticket services. He lost, and his party turned away from him and from “austerity,” as borrow-and-spend enthusiasts like to call paying for public services as you go.
NDP leader John Horgan took note of the apparent shift in public mood to tolerate borrowing. The NDP under Adrian Dix promised deficit spending four years ago, but wrapped it in a claim it would only spend the B.C. Liberals’ alleged hidden deficit. That didn’t work very well.
In 2017, will Horgan follow Mulcair’s path or Trudeau’s? He is careful not to commit himself now on specific positions, but in a recent interview with The Vancouver Sun, Horgan did question the need to account for the costs of every promise.
“Justin Trudeau didn’t cost a damn thing,” he said. “And Donald Trump’s not costed a damn thing, nor did Bernie Sanders, and I don’t imagine Hillary Clinton will either.”
Actually, Trudeau did cost his platform for voters. Then, after winning a majority, he threw those estimates out and tripled the forecast deficits.
Canada spent itself into a huge hole in the 1970s, and it took until the 1990s to get out of it. We’ll soon find out if that lesson is lost on a new generation of voters.
Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @tomfletcherbc