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BC's Finances Not Healthy Enough to Settle the Strike: Minister

Delivering budget update, Mike de Jong doesn't rule out legislating teachers back to work.

By Andrew MacLeod 9 Sep 2014 | TheTyee.ca

Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's Legislative Bureau Chief in Victoria. Find him on Twitter or reach him here.

British Columbia is in better financial shape than expected, but not good enough to commit more money to settling the provincial teachers' dispute that has half a million students shut out of classes, Finance Minister Mike de Jong said today.

Nor did de Jong rule out legislating the B.C. Teachers' Federation back to work, breaking with the government's message in recent weeks.

The minister was delivering the first quarterly update on the 2014-2015 budget. "The money is there for admittedly modest wage increases," he said. But it is not there for the BCTF's wage demand that's double what other public sector employees have received, nor "the cascading effect that could well have for other negotiations that are yet to come or that have already taken place," he said.

A BCTF spokesperson says it's unfair to claim the union is seeking double what other public sector workers received. While other unions received a maximum of a four percent raise over two years, 2012 and 2013, the BCTF did not settle in that round of bargaining and members received no raises for those years. In the current round of bargaining, the two sides are reportedly close on wages -- the government is offering seven per cent over six years, while the union is seeking eight per cent over five years.

Both the BCTF and the government say the two sides are about $300 million apart, an amount a BCTF spokesperson said works out to about $3 per student per day. Besides wages, the difference is from measures to address class size and composition, benefits, and a signing bonus. The government had earlier offered a $1,200 per teacher signing bonus and the BCTF is now asking for $5,000 per teacher, something union president Jim Iker has called "negotiable."

The projected surplus for 2014-15 is $266 million, an increase of $82 million from when the budget was presented in February. Revenue projections are up by $515 million since budget day, more than balancing expenses that have risen by $433 million.

The government saved $163 million directly due to the strike and unplanned days off up until the end of June, according to the update. A further $53 million was saved so far this year on things like delayed maintenance that didn't happen over the summer because of the strike.

'A razor's edge' surplus

The government has received registrations for close to 80 per cent of eligible students to receive $40 per day for each child 12 years old or younger while the strike continues, de Jong said. The money to cover the payments will come out of savings from schools being closed in September.

Minister de Jong ruled out putting any of the government's savings towards settling the dispute. Much of the surplus is one time money that will be unavailable next year or in future years, he said. "We'll put ourselves in great jeopardy if we pretend otherwise."

The surplus is small compared to the size of the provincial budget, he said. "On a $44-billion budget, $200 million falls within, well the term [the media has] used and I've used is 'a razor's edge.'"

Finally, it would be unfair to treat the BCTF differently than other unions, he said.

"To suggest as some have, unfortunately [NDP leader John] Horgan has, we simply open up the vault and pay out on the demands of one group ignores the risk associated with that to taxpayers and ignores the principle of fairness that applies not just to taxpayers but to the other hard-working women and men with whom we have either signed agreements or are negotiating agreements."

Legislation? De Jong hopes not

Asked whether as house leader he expects the government will introduce legislation to impose a contract and force an end to the strike, de Jong said he hoped not.

"We have an obligation to ensure students receive a solid public school education; we have an obligation to ensure that that is done in a way that is affordable to taxpayers," he said. "We have an obligation to exhaust every possible means of negotiating an agreement and a track record, with every other public sector union, that demonstrates we can accomplish those three... at least two of those objectives."

Education Minister Peter Fassbender previously said it would be "irresponsible" for the government to legislate the teachers back to work. "We would be shelving the same problem for a few short years," he said in a recent editorial. "The cycle of strike and legislated contract has to end."

One of the main things driving up expenses was $378 million in "statutory spending" that the government has to make, the bulk of which was for fighting forest fires. Revenue increases included $275 million from taxes, $156 million from natural resources, and $121 million from Crown corporations.  [Tyee]

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