Skip to content
Join our Newsletter

Les Leyne: NDP cabinet ministers struggle to spend last-minute budget windfalls

One of the problems with hitting this fluke jackpot is that every decision in favour of one program means others were left out. The choices are being scrutinized by B.C. Liberal and Green MLAs.
B.C. legislature building in downtown Victoria. TIMES COLONIST

The budget hikes bestowed on some NDP cabinet ministers are so big, some of them might have gotten more than they knew what to do with.

Lucky for them Premier David Eby was there to help.

Watching that enormous surprise surplus work its way through the legislative system leaves the impression some of the windfalls are being distributed to ministries with some firm instructions from the premier’s office on what to do with them.

The miraculous pre-Christmas arrival of billions of dollars in unexpected revenue has created a situation where the normal pattern of spending approval is reversed.

Usually ministers fight for every nickel they can get and operate over the year on the results. This time around, the Finance Ministry, on orders from the top, is stuffing unexpected cash into accounts just as the clock runs down on the fiscal year.

So the ministers are defending plans to spend money they didn’t even know was coming until recently.

That $5.7-billion surplus materialized in a late November update. Plans to spend much of it were hatched soon after.

The ideas piled in and the money poured out in a series of announcements. Being an NDP cabinet minister over the past few months has been like being in the audience at an Oprah taping.

“You get a car and you get a car and you get a car!”

One of the problems with hitting this fluke jackpot is that every decision in favour of one program means others were left out. The choices are being scrutinized by B.C. Liberal and Green MLAs.

Eby got to announce a billion for B.C. municipalities, a half-billion for B.C. Ferries and so on.

Cabinet ministers get to explain to Opposition critics why hundreds of other worthy programs didn’t get their stockings stuffed. Part of that surplus is parcelled into a pile of supplementary spending worth $2.7 billion that is currently up for debate.

It’s been disbursed to 11 ministries. So each minister has to explain a spending plan that was cooked up on short notice in the last few months.

Two examples:

Transportation and Infrastructure Minister Rob Fleming got a half-billion dollars extra. He made it clear that it came with some directions.

Eby and Finance Minister Katrine Conroy identified minimizing ferry fare hikes as “a very good opportunity” for the government to pursue, Fleming said.

So, subject to an independent commissioner’s okay, most of it will sent to the ferry corporation with instructions to use it offset projected fare increases, starting next year

It’s two-and-a-half times the typical annual government contribution all in one go. Some will be used for electrification.

It’s good news for Islanders. A potential 10 per cent annual fare hike may be cut to three per cent. But there was a moment that perfectly illustrated the downside.

Liberal critic Peter Milobar, from Kamloops, drove to the legislature via the Coquihalla highway. “There were no lanes plowed, the shoulder lane was a foot of slush and there were no plows to be seen.

“But no extra dollars for highway maintenance, apparently.”

A lot of Interior residents will look at Islanders’ good fortune and think the same thing.

The Ministry of Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation operated on a $171-million budget this year. Then Minister Murray Rankin suddenly got $75 million more.

He got more latitude on deciding where to spend it than others. Rankin said the finance minister, working with the premier’s office, asked how the funds should be spent. Rankin earmarked most of it for the Cheslatta Carrier First Nation.

It has a settlement agreement with B.C. over the shameful dislocation imposed on band members by dam construction in the 1950s.

There was $10 million paid out last year. Now another $50 million will be paid out all at once, years ahead of schedule.

Opposition B.C. Liberal critic Michael Lee asked: “What is the message to the other First Nations not included?”

And Green MLA Adam Olsen queried why it wasn’t disbursed more broadly, to build Indigenous capacity to review legislation.

The legislative agenda stalled out for three weeks and there are suspicions it’s because bills couldn’t be introduced because First Nations don’t have enough resources to review them.

Liberals are voting against the top-ups, including one to the B.C. Cancer Agency, but it’s just because the opposition always votes against the budget, no matter how stuffed it is with goodies.

[email protected]

>>> To comment on this article, write a letter to the editor: [email protected]