The provincial Liberals passed the halfway point of their first 90 days in office last week, with a large number of the commitments they promised to carry out in this first three months still to be kept. While the Liberals are discovering things are worse than they expected (surprise, surprise), they appear no less committed to keeping their 90-day promises. And now that the legislature is sitting again we can expect a flurry of activity.
The news at the start of this week was that the provincial deficit could reach $5 billion in the next three years, according to the independent panel appointed by Premier Gordon Campbell to review the provinces books. That was the panels forecast if there are no changes to the status quo.
Finance Minister Gary Collins followed that announcement with word that next weeks mini-budget would have a $1.5 billion deficit. The basic story is the same as it has been for most of the past decade: B.C. is spending more money that it is taking in.
There are basically three ways to address this problem (and the Liberals, unlike previous governments, do see it as a problem): stimulate the economy; cut spending (i.e., jobs); and find new sources of revenue. The Liberals have indicated they will try to do all three. However, with the Lower Mainland into the fourth month of a transit strike and the health care system briefly paralyzed by an illegal strike earlier this week, the fuse is burning on a labour powder keg and severe spending cuts right now might ignite the whole province.
Thats not the approach advocated by either the review panel or the Liberals. Both have said cuts should be made after careful review of each ministry, rather than across the board.
However, the panel also warned of "future pressures for increased capital spending" which could hamper efforts to reduce the deficit. It identified those as: transportation, particularly rapid transit in the Lower Mainland; capital needs in the health and advanced education sectors; and the capital costs that would be associated with a successful bid for the 2010 Olympics.
West Vancouver-Garibaldi MLA Ted Nebbeling, the minister responsible for the Olympic bid, doesnt see the Games being a major capital expense for the province.
"We expect the private sector to play a major role in financing and we dont yet know what role the federal government would have in financing," Nebbeling said this week. "I cant say the financial pressures the province faces have to do with the Olympics."
Nebbeling added that the Sea to Sky highway has to be improved and other modes of transport need to be looked at, but those are public safety and transportation issues that have to be addressed anyway, rather than Olympic issues.
What the Olympic bid is, in the Liberal plan, is a way to stimulate the economy.
"The provincial government strongly supports the Olympic bid," Nebbeling said. "Its an opportunity to showcase British Columbia to visitors and an opportunity for business. Remember Expo, that had a tremendous impact on the province as a whole. I believe the Olympics could do that again. Its a unique opportunity."
While there is merit to that argument, one problem the Liberal government faces is timing. The Games themselves are nearly nine years away but the official bid has to be submitted by early 2003. The bid must include commitments to whatever transportation solutions and other capital costs are required to stage the Olympics. Given the financial review panels report and the current labour climate, committing provincial money to the Olympics in the next 18 months may not be popular.