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Why BC’s new ‘budget’ will be stale by September

On Tuesday, driving home after nearly six hours in the budget lock-up, I turned on the radio and there was Christy Clark, ex-BC Liberal MLA and cabinet minister, hosting her CKNW talk show.

The ex-politician was interviewing a “political panel” to discuss finance minister Colin Hansen’s fiscal plan for 2009/10. Her guests were Michael Levy — a one-time Social Credit candidate — and Greg Lyle — a former BC Liberal and Socred strategist.

‘Perfectly-balanced’ is the phrase that came to mind — 1.5 former BC Liberals and 1.5 ex-Socreds. Surprisingly, and despite their varied political backgrounds, all were in general agreement on Hansen’s budget. It was excellent!

Notwithstanding their years of political experience, however, the group seemed puzzled by one small detail. Is Hansen’s fiscal plan a real budget that will guide B.C.’s fiscal affairs for the entire year, or does the legislature have to come back sometime later this year to pass another one following the election?

The short answer is that it all depends on whether the BC Liberals allow the Legislature to function in the democratic manner it was designed to do, or whether, instead, they replay their dodge of 2005.

If Finance Minister Colin Hansen and his party debate and pass the spending estimates introduced last week, there is no fiscal requirement for the legislature to be recalled for another budget until next year.

But if the Liberals refuse to defend their budget through the estimates debate, and instead pass an interim-supply bill before the legislature is dissolved, then the House is near-certain to open in September.

Does this matter? Yes it does. Very much, as The Tyee is happy to explain.

First, some background on how we got here.

In 2000, the NDP government of Ujjal Dosanjh introduced the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act. Among the bill’s many provisions was one stating that in the event a general election intervened before a fiscal year’s spending estimates were adopted by the legislature, new estimates were to be presented “as soon as reasonably practicable.”

The following year, in March 2001, the New Democrats introduced a budget for fiscal 2001/02. But instead of passing the budget estimates, the NDP government adopted an interim-supply bill that provided Victoria with operating monies for a four-month period.

Not long thereafter the legislature was dissolved and on May 16 Dosanjh’s New Democrats suffered an electoral defeat of epic proportions. Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals were sworn into office on June 5, 2001.

Two fiscal imperatives faced Campbell’s new government. First, the monies provided in the interim-supply bill passed by the NDP prior to the election were going to be exhausted by about the end of July — four months into the fiscal year.

Second, as required by the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act, the BC Liberals had to present budget estimates as soon as was “reasonably practicable.”

So, on July 31, 2001 — just as the NDP’s interim supply measure was expiring — new BC Liberal finance minster Gary Collins introduced an up-dated budget along with new spending estimates. All of the estimates were passed by the end of August.

The government also found time to amend the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act. As a consequence, now, if a general election intervenes before the budget estimates are adopted, a re-elected or newly-elected government must table the estimates “no later than 90 days after the post-election appointment of the Executive Council.”

Four years later, on the eve of another election, the BC Liberals saw and took their opportunity to avoid having to put forward and debate an actual budget for the entire year.

Instead, in February of 2005, Colin Hansen (who had succeeded Collins as finance minister), introduced a budget and spending estimates for 2005/06. But before the estimates could be debated, the BC Liberals passed an enormous interim-supply bill providing monies for about a half-year of operations. The legislature then was dissolved, and B.C.’s politicians hit the hustings in anticipation of the May 17 general election.

Campbell’s Liberals won re-election, but their new government was not sworn in until June 16. (The government probably waited for the election to be decided in Vancouver-Burrard, where after a re-count incumbent BC Liberal Lorne Mayencourt was returned by a narrow, 11-vote margin on June 10.)

The government had enough operating monies until about October, but the 90-day provision in the Budget Transparency and Accountability Act required that new budget-estimates be presented to the House by Sept. 24.

And so a new legislative session began on Sept. 12, and two days later finance minister Carole Taylor (who had succeeded Hansen) brought down a new budget and spending estimates.

What will happen this year? It depends on two considerations. First, Hansen already has indicated that the government — like the NDP in 2001, and the BC Liberals in 2005 — is unwilling to debate its own pre-election spending estimates.

For those who care about such things as a fully-informed electorate, and honesty and integrity in the province’s finances, this truly is a sad development. And incredibly disappointing that it’s about to happen for the third time in a decade with little outcry from the news media, the business community, organized labour, and other members of the general public.

In the event that the House is dissolved before the estimates are passed, then new estimates must be introduced within 90-days after the party winning the May general election has been sworn into office.

But the second consideration concerns the size of the interim-supply bill Hansen is certain to introduce in the next few weeks. If that Bill provides funding for three months or less, then the legislature will begin sitting as early as June. However, it’s more likely he’ll do as he did in 2005 and provide funding for a half-year or so.

In the latter event, the 90-day provision kicks-in, and the legislative assembly will open in September to pass a new budget and spending-estimates.

As stated above, then, if Hansen and the BC Liberals debate and pass the spending estimates introduced last Wednesday, there is no fiscal requirement for the legislature to be recalled for another budget until next year.

But if Campbell’s Liberals refuse to defend their budget through the estimates debate, and instead pass an interim-supply bill before the legislature is dissolved, then the House is near-certain to open in September.

Which will mean that last week’s budget is just so much hot air; garbage, actually, best disposed-of in an environmentally-friendly manner.

So, maybe our radio talk-show host can convene a panel sometime in the future to discuss why British Columbians are increasingly cynical with regards to their elected officials.

Veteran political analyst Will McMartin is a Tyee contributing editor.

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