What would a New Democrat government do if the B.C. Liberals’ big land sale actually produces some serious interest?
Selling off surplus lands is a key part of making the balanced-budget arithmetic work, since they’re envisioning about $800 million in cash on the table over the next few years.
The NDP opposes the idea at this point. But if the sale brings eager buyers flocking, it’s easy to imagine a fresh new NDP government taking the money, and then hating themselves later for it.
Opposition leader Adrian Dix told a party fundraising event in Oak Bay last week that “the core of the budget is going to be about the government deciding to sell the assets of B.C. in one fiscal year to claim a balanced budget.”
He had some philosophical objections to the idea, saying public land represents “our common need to have things that belong to us as a community,” and it’s an increasing urban need.
“It’s important that we not do something as foolhardy as sell the long-term interests of the province out for the short-term interests of the governing party.”
After the budget was introduced, NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston wasn’t quite so definitive about governments selling land in general.
Asked if the party opposes it in principle, he said no.
“Governments buy and sell properties routinely ... What’s extraordinary is to use a program of asset sales to fill a hole in the budget.”
It’s the need to sell surplus land to raise cash that seems to offend him, more than the program itself.
Dix again on Wednesday condemned the idea, saying it generates one-time income that supports programs that become needy again the following year.
Under the NDP government in the 1990s, about a half-billion dollars worth of government properties were sold.
B.C. Liberals have sold $380 million worth in the past 11 years.
If the NDP win the May 14 election, they may not even get a chance to wrestle with their conscience. It has taken a long time to sell a big chunk of land on Little Mountain in Metro Vancouver. And the related sale of the Liquor Distribution Branch was withdrawn to get a contract with the union. And only 16 of the 100 properties that have been declared surplus have advanced in the process to the point of being identified.
The idea could easily sputter out after closing a few deals that are too far along to back out of.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong defended the program at a Victoria Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday, saying it will generate economic activity. But he acknowledged some frustration at all the secrecy around the program.
He said ministry staff insist that disclosing the location and the numbers on the market at any given time could potentially depreciate the values.
There’s not much question, though, that they are unloading everything they can.
Budget documents minimize the extent by saying the surplus lands are only two per cent of the government’s holdings (meaning there are 5,000 holdings). But that’s a meaningless figure. The government uses most of those for countless purposes.
The more pertinent question is: What percentage of government surplus properties are on the market?
And the answer seems to be: All of them.
All the land being sold is surplus. And all the surplus land is up for sale.
Just So You Know: Some leftover budget notes:
n If there’s any doubt about how profitable B.C. Lottery Corp.’s move to online gambling is, it was dispelled this week.
The corporation responsible for all legal gambling is expected to show a 10 per cent increase in net revenue in the coming year. Lottery and casino revenue will grown seven and eight per cent. The eGaming sector run from the PlayNow website is expected to grow 107 per cent.
n The carbon-tax neutrality that was a key part of its introduction is still holding, but not by much. It was brought in with a legal requirement that all the carbon tax increases would be offset by corresponding tax cuts.
The latest estimate is that it produced $1.2 billion in revenue and was offset by $1.4 billion in credits and tax cuts.
Next fiscal year, the tax and the offsets are projected to be exactly the same — $1.2 billion.
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