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Reality check: On Clark's recent balanced budget claims, and billboard hazards

[Editor's note: This is the latest in a frequent series keeping campaigners honest, by reporter Bob Mackin.]

Synopsis: Premier Christy Clark's sales job for the BC Liberals' pre-election budget continued Monday during an appearance on the Bill Good Show on CKNW AM 980. Clark was trying to convince voters of its merit by claiming third-party validation by two credit rating houses and a prominent economist.

What she said: "I think lots of people are skeptical about government in general, fair enough, right? And I know Adrian Dix is saying it's not balanced. Well, Moody's bond rating agency, they're not going to get a job by saying the budget, pretending the budget is balanced. You can believe Moody's, you can believe Adrian Dix. You can believe Dominion bond rating agency, they also said it was balanced. You can believe Adrian Dix. You can believe the former chief economist at the Bank of Montreal, or you can believe Adrian Dix. I mean, the budget is balanced..."

What they said: Neither agency actually declared the budget balanced. Both conceded that the budget was not passed into law before the election.

Dominion (March 26): "Despite a weak economic growth outlook, the budget introduced on February 19, 2013, marks the culmination of the Province's plan to return to fiscal balance in 2013-14. DBRS acknowledges that all budget measures may not be implemented before the upcoming provincial election scheduled for May 14, 2013. Nevertheless, the fiscal progress made to date and a relatively low debt burden in relation to peers provide British Columbia with sufficient flexibility within its current ratings, be it to withstand further economic malaise or a potential relaxation in fiscal discipline."

Moody's (April 4): "The province's debt burden remains manageable given its credit strengths and high debt affordability given the current low interest rate environment, which allows the province to issue long-term debt bearing historically low couples. Furthermore, B.C.'s large and diversified economy is another source of credit strength that supports the Aaa rating.

"The negative outlook reflects the risks to the province's ability to reverse the recent accumulation of debt given a softened economic outlook, weaker commodity prices and continued expense pressures."

Former BMO chief economist Tim O'Neill was paid $25,000 on a two-week government contract in February. He deemed the budget "generally well-founded." His report only reviewed the revenue projects, not the costs.

History: Finance Minister Mike de Jong promised to re-table the same budget after the election, should the Liberals win. British Columbians shouldn't forget how the NDP claimed a balanced budget during its victorious 1996 campaign, but that budget became a $235-million deficit afterward. The 2009 Liberal pre-election deficit budget of $495 million grew to $2.8 billion when it was re-tabled in September of that year.

Board surfing: Clark's interview came the day after the Liberals' Sunday unveiling of the NDP Spend-O-Meter video billboard ad near the Alex Fraser Bridge. The attempt to woo voters from key Surrey ridings claims to show how much the NDP wants to spend if it wins. The 10-second video shows numbers in black on white, scrolling from $2,100,000 to $2,445,000. "Out of control NDP spending will drive our economy off the cliff" says white type on an orange background along the bottom. A video of Dix in black-and-white in the lower left corner depicts the NDP leader chewing gum, winking his left eye, and nodding to the left.

First the real costs: The Canadian Taxpayers' Federation released its tally of party promises on Monday, pegging the NDP at $962 million so far, topping the Conservatives at $767,666,667. The Liberals, based on their budget, are at $85.15 million. The CTF counted 427 uncosted promises in the Green Party platform.

"They (Liberals) opened the door to tax hikes, and the NDP seem happy to kick it all the way in," said CTF B.C. director Jordan Bateman in his analysis. "B.C. NDP and Conservatives are essentially polar opposites: the NDP are promising to raise taxes by $597 million while the Conservatives look to cut taxes by $1.4 billion."

Is it safe?: The Liberals' 2010 distracted driving law banned the use of mobile phones while driving. The Transportation Ministry said driving and talking or texting was responsible for 104 deaths that year. The cost of crashes annually is estimated at $3.6 billion, using a World Health Organization formula based on two per cent of Gross Domestic Product.

A 2009 Office of the Superintendent of Motor Vehicles Discussion Paper on Cell Phone-Induced Failures of Visual Attention During Simulated Driving" mentioned the potential hazard of billboards once.

"Participants' eyes fixated on billboards similarly when talking on a cell phone compared to not talking on a cell phone... when a driver is conversing on a cell phone their gaze may be at a particular object however they still fail to see it more often than drivers not talking on a cell phone. The result is an induced failure to process visual information. This concept has been coined 'inattention-blindness.'"

Is the Dix ad dangerous?

"It hasn't been raised to me as a concern," said Transport Minister Mary Polak, who is running for re-election in Langley. "Certainly there are examples of billboards like that on the approach to the Port Mann, the approach to the Burrard Street bridge and I'm not aware of any statistics that show any increased rate of crashes.

A 2006 U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study on the Impact of Driver Inattention On Near-Crash/Crash Risk said: "glances totalling more than two seconds for any purpose increase near-crash/crash risk by at least two times that of normal, baseline driving."

A Swedish Transport Administration study on the effects of electronic billboards on driver distraction from July 2012 said "billboards have an effect on gaze behaviour by attracting more and longer glances than the regular traffic signs. Whether the billboards attract attention too much, that is, whether they are a traffic safety hazard, cannot be answered conclusively based on the present data."

Bob Mackin is part of The Tyee's B.C. election 2013 reporting team.

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