Bribing us with our own money

The B.C. Liberals bring down their last provincial budget today before the May election. In other words, here come the goodies, with taxpayers getting back some of their money for some of the things they need. Put even more cynically, this is the budget where sitting governments use the wallets of voters to buy votes.

B.C. has recorded consecutive surplus budgets by any means necessary, including slashing spending and juggling the books to count selling assets as revenue. Elected officials holding the bureaucracy accountable on rising costs (try it some day, Prince George city council) is a good thing but there is only so much low-hanging fruit, to paraphrase Premier Christy Clark.

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Under the Liberals, cost cutting has become counterproductive, an end to itself rather than with working towards the goal of reaching the greatest efficiency per dollar spent.

The result has been inadequate investment in education at both the primary and post-secondary level, in health care, in child protection and in environmental oversight.

A thrifty government is good but a cheap government is bad because it creates long-term harm with short-term benefits.

Those benefits are easy to measure (money in the bank, surplus budgets) but the harm is often harder to quantify and unfolds over many years, long after the accountants have put the fiscal year-end books to bed. Often that cost is in human suffering and an unnecessary drain on the medical system and social services, dealing with people and problems that could have been averted by giving vulnerable individuals the tools to care for themselves.

That balance is difficult to achieve, particularly when a significant portion of the electorate resents the very idea of tax dollars being used to help drug addicts, welfare mothers and other dependents.

Those most stridently against such spending are often the people closest to financial ruin and government dependency should they lose their jobs or if interest rates rise by a few points. They ignore the fact that helping drug addicts reduces crime and lowers health costs.

They ignore the fact that welfare mothers have kids (duh) and keeping those kids safe and fed so they can go to school, grow up and not be drug addicts and welfare mothers is the primary goal.

Nobody grows up wanting to be hooked on meth, nor does any woman want to depend on a cheque from the government to feed her kids. All they need is help so they no longer need help and so they can even help others.

Even when governments put money back into social programs or the environment or education or health, it means choosing in one area and neglecting another.

Prince George surgeons aren't happy to hear about more than half a billion dollars going towards surgical facilities in Kamloops and Vancouver, with none of it coming to Prince George.

They're right to complain from a Prince George perspective.

How is Prince George expected to recruit and retain surgeons and specialists if these highly-trained doctors aren't able to use their skills to their full capability in order to treat patients?

And forget the Hippocratic Oath for a moment and talk dollars. Why should a surgeon make $300,000 a year in Prince George when she could make $400,000 a year in Kelowna or Kamloops thanks to more time working in the operating room?

Nobody else would leave that money on the table, so why should politicians and patients expect doctors to do so?

Except for little blips of tiny growth in Prince George and a few other municipalities, the regional population continues to decline, while more and more people continue to flock to Greater Vancouver and the Southern Interior.

Strictly from a population perspective, plowing money into operating rooms down south makes perfect sense.

Furthermore, Prince George professionals, be they doctors, lawyers, teachers or business and political leaders, often adopt the "what's good for Prince George is good for central and northern B.C.," ignoring the fact that they're also the first to ridicule the same "what's good for Vancouver is good for the province" argument.

When given the choice, doctors and patients in rural central and northern B.C. would rather see health dollars spent in their communities, rather than it be further centralized in Prince George. And if they need to see a specialist, more than a few of them would prefer Vancouver to Prince George anyway.

With all due respect to the fine surgeons, nurses and hospital staff at the University Hospital of Northern B.C., many area residents would choose their specialized treatment at a big hospital in a big city because of the feeling that they're getting the best care available. It doesn't matter whether it's true or not, that's the belief. Rural residents will often bypass Prince George for major shopping excursions in Vancouver or Calgary for the same reasons.

Today's budget will have likely have some more treats for Prince George and area but residents shouldn't expect too much.

It's hypocritical to vote in politicians that vow to run government lean and mean but then expect them to throw money around at election time.

But, so long as the money's coming their way, voters are often willing to overlook that contradiction.

-- Managing editor Neil Godbout

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