BALDREY: Whether it’s classrooms or ferries, stinginess is not going away soon

Two issues have sprung to the fore in the opening weeks of the legislature that put the stingy (some would say miserly) ways of the BC Liberal government on full public display.

One of them is the never-ending story about the funding of public education in this province, while the other is another seemingly endless tale – how much funding the B.C. Ferry system should receive from taxpayers.

Let’s tackle the complex education system first.

In a classic case of giving with one hand while taking with the other, the government has topped up a special learning fund by $23 million while at the same time cutting school board budgets by $29 million (followed by a further $25 million chop the following year).

But while the public education system is being squeezed (yet again), the government has topped up the budget for independent schools by $30 million (an increase largely driven by a significant hike in student enrollment at independent schools).

The optics, as they say, don’t look good here.

There have been howls of outrage from B.C. school trustees about these pending cuts but Premier Christy Clark has characterized the cost-cutting (or, cost "savings" in government parlance) exercise as merely going after "low-hanging fruit."

That dismissive comment was like throwing oil on a long-simmering fire.

School districts have been grappling with rising, unfunded costs in the system for years. Things like inflation, pension improvements, rising MSP premiums and BC Hydro rates haven’t been covered by additional funding for quite a while, thus making the mandatory achievement of an annual balanced school board budget that much more difficult to accomplish every year.

Nevertheless, the provincial government is convinced legitimate savings can be found, either through a greater emphasis on shared "services" between some school districts or simply realizing cost efficiencies and eliminating spending waste.

Still, one can’t help but wonder whether there is a hidden agenda at work here: a not-so-subtle push to get some school districts to amalgamate.

While it remains to be seen whether that $29-million reduction can occur without hurting classroom instruction, it’s a different case when it comes to forcing "savings" on the B.C. Ferry system.

BC Ferries has already gone through a significant round of cost-cutting and consolidation, as sailings on many routes have been eliminated.

There’s not much more there to cut and BC Ferries does not have control over certain cost items.

For example, the size of crews on ships – a favourite target of those who like to make apples-and-oranges comparisons to the Washington State ferry system – is mandated by Transport Canada, not by BC Ferries, and labour is a huge cost item.

A petition with 20,000 names on it was delivered to the legislature last week, calling for BC Ferries to return to the full control of the provincial government. Such a move (not that it has much of a chance of happening) is meaningless, since it would do nothing

to address the chief problem for B.C. ferry users: high fares that keep getting higher.

B.C. taxpayers already generously fund BC Ferries, to the tune of about $190 million a year in subsidies. That’s almost $2 billion over 10 years, which puts that kind of funding on a level with major highway infrastructure projects like bridges.

But without any increase to that subsidy, fares will undoubtedly continue to climb, as B.C. Ferries has limited power to deal with two big cost items: labour and fuel costs.

And so far, the penny-pinching BC Liberals show no sign of even entertaining the idea of boosting that annual subsidy. As I’ve noted here before, there is a disconnect between the ruling party and many regular users of B.C.’s ferries.

I suspect most of the 20,000 names on that petition, for example, are of people who live in ferry-dependent communities – which for the most part are NDP strongholds during provincial elections.

And so there isn’t much of an entry point into the BC Liberal caucus for ferry advocates to apply political pressure, thus allowing the government to continue is steadfast insistence that there is no more water in the well to be drawn here.

In contrast, I suspect the escalating tension in the education sector will eventually have more of a chance to force the government to moderate its position, at least some.

That doesn’t mean the BC Liberals will start spending like drunken sailors though. Far from it: stinginess is here for a while.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC.

He can reached by email at Keith.Baldrey@globalnews.ca

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