By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter
In a refreshing departure from the rancour and theatrics of the session’s final string of Question Periods, Opposition legislators calmly and factually scrutinized the government’s financials in Estimates Committee last week.
“It is a unique time and a unique position for a Finance Minister to have to come forward after budget has been tabled to request supplementary spending,” Minister of Finance Carole James said to committee members Aug. 11.
The unusual request for extra funding referred to the $5 billion COVID-19 relief and economic recovery package brought forth in an emergency one-day session on Mar. 23. The request for supplemental funding came just one month after James presented the government’s annual budget in February. All Members of the Legislature pulled together in March and passed a number of public emergency-related measures.
“The fact that this entire Legislature came together in a very short period of time, during a very difficult time,” said James, “really speaks volumes to the individuals in this House.”
During this year’s summer session, besides the usual process of examining and approving the annual budget spending announced in February, Opposition and Third Party MLAs were also tasked with doing the same for the additional $5 billion in COVID-19 funding.
Most of this work is done in Committee of Supply. Budget estimates must be approved for each ministry. Estimates Committee provides the representatives an opportunity to question each minister directly about the details of his or her ministry’s spending.
Last week, James was under the spotlight. She began with a message of cooperation.
“We may disagree, but when it comes to very important times, I think we showed that we can come together,” said James. “We can get work done.”
As Finance Co-Critic for the Opposition, Prince George -Valemount MLA Shirley Bond led the questions and echoed the Minister’s generous opening.
“As the minister points out, there are places we’re going to agree to disagree,” Bond said. “But we’ve also found ways to work as constructively as we possibly can.”
Proving her point, Bond and James spent the next hour jostling between the Budget 2020 estimates and the economic scenario presented by James in July, which forecasted the pandemic’s devastating effect on the economy: a $6.3 billion drop in revenues for the province over 2020/21 with the government’s original $227 million surplus long gone.
Bond drilled down through various revenue declines: property transfer and property taxes by $465 million; fuel and carbon taxes by $382 million. The natural resource revenue losses were forecast to dip by $293 million.
“As we look at those numbers, we can certainly take a moment to reflect on the significant challenges that the government is facing,” said Bond, adding the Opposition would follow up with more questions about the resource revenues later in Estimates.
Bond next queried the Minister on the projected net income of BC Hydro and there she hit a wall.
“There are a number of pieces that have to still be collected,” said James. “Updates for BC Hydro and ICBC will be coming forward in Q1 (first quarter), which will be coming in September.”
Bond pressed on.
“We’re not arguing that there aren’t details outstanding,” Bond said. “But at the very least, can the minister give us a sense of what the assumed loss is for each Crown?”
The Minister would not. Citing ICBC, James said lower claims, few accidents, and falling revenue from investments, all contributed to uncertainty and volatility. “Both of those Crown corporations are putting that information together,”
James said, reiterating the data would be forthcoming in September.
An hour later, Liberal Finance Co-critic Tracy Redies, MLA Surrey-White Rock, picked up Bond’s thread. The former CEO of Coast Capital Savings, Redies continued digging for answers on ICBC and BC Hydro.
But James wouldn’t budge. Questions about revenue, drops in revenue, and any operating and investment figures would have to wait for the first quarter reports in September, said James.
“I guess I’m not going to get an exact answer there,” said Redies. “All roads lead to Public Accounts and the Q1s.”
Whereas, tempers may have flared under similar circumstances in Question Period, in Committee, the mood remained steady.
Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / Fran@thegoatnews.ca