VICTORIA – Call it the Beach Blanket Budget.
Despite having to campaign once again to win a seat in a byelection, Premier Christy Clark has ordered the legislature to sit without her through most of July to pass the budget that was tabled before the election.
This rare summer session ensures a couple of things. First, there will be less time for real financial results to contradict the rosy predictions made by Finance Minister Mike de Jong in February.
Second, it ensures that there will be minimum public attention paid to the deliberations, as people focus on their summer vacations and put the business of running the province aside again.
B.C. Liberal house leader Mike de Jong insists there has been no decision made on whether the legislature will sit again in the fall. The standard schedule, put in place under former premier Gordon Campbell, calls for MLAs to assemble in October and November, to consider legislation, after a spring devoted to the budget and ministry spending.
This was a serious reform that went along with four-year scheduled elections. But Campbell soon abandoned this noble approach, with fall sessions dwindling to a few days to deal with urgent issues or disappearing altogether.
I expected Clark to reverse that after she led the party to victory in May and consigned the Campbell era to the history books. Open, accountable government and all that.
So why the summer session? I’m inclined to agree with NDP house leader John Horgan, who meets privately with de Jong in his role of government house leader to thrash out schedules. Here’s Horgan’s message to Clark and her government as he emerged from the latest meeting:
“You ran on a platform that you claimed you were ready to implement. And what we’re getting instead is, ‘let’s jam ’em in here while the media’s on holidays, while people are at the beach thinking about other things. We’ll pass our bogus budget and then we’ll see you in February’.”
Is the budget accurate, or “bogus,” or somewhere in between? They’re always projections, so that can’t be determined until next year. But the proposal to keep the increase in overall spending to less than two per cent, with nearly all the increase going to health and education, is difficult to accept.
During his time, Campbell topped the Fraser Institute’s ranking of most fiscally responsible premiers, limiting spending growth to 4.4 per cent. During those same years, average provincial economic growth was only 4.1 per cent, meaning that under the supposedly tight-fisted, tax-cutting Campbell, government continued to grow to more than 20 per cent of gross domestic product.
Clark has indicated several times since her surprise election win that she intends to make government smaller. That’s the difference between her “core review” of government programs and the one conducted by Campbell in the painful first years of his mandate.
This is why I mentioned last week that one of the more significant instructions given to Clark’s cabinet ministers was to examine turning the Liquor Distribution Branch into a separate corporation with its own board of directors.
That in itself may slightly increases the size of government. But it could be a preliminary step to selling the whole thing off and reducing the government’s role to taxing and regulating booze sales.
You can imagine how that would go over with the NDP, with former liquor store union boss George Heyman among the loudest opposition MLAs.
This is the kind of change that should be debated in public, not by press release.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com