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B.C. Liberals shower voters with good news

Premier Christy Clark will launch her Liberal Party's election platform next Sunday with a half-hour television show featuring her, and some "everyday British Columbians." It is timed to set the stage for the campaign that officially begins on April 16, when the 39th B.C. Parliament is dissolved.

But the politicians have been in full campaign mode – some would say for two years, but certainly since the MLAs said their teary goodbye's to the legislature three weeks ago. Since then, the government has unleashed a barrage of good-news announcements that conveniently might be helpful for those Liberals seeking re-election.

In a single day last week, there were a dozen announcements with dollars attached, including a $7-million shot in the arm for regional training opportunities, $6.2-million for climate-action initiatives, $6.8-million to boost a job-match program and $6.3-million for new supportive housing.

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Some of these announcements are driven by the annual budget cycle – ministers can turn on the taps at the end of the fiscal year if they have money left sitting around.

Some have been creatively recycled from previous commitments. And some are promises that raise expectations without offering any money in this year's budget.

But it is all convenient campaign fodder – quick wins, if you will. The Premier and her key ministers get to foster some goodwill in ridings they would very much like to hang onto when voters head to the polls on May 14. But at a time when the B.C. Liberals are seeking to paint their NDP opponents as profligate spenders, all those projects are supposed to have been carefully accounted for by the Treasury Board.

If the core of your campaign message is that the NDP can't be trusted to manage tax dollars, you had better demonstrate that you can do better.

The Liberals have struggled with budget credibility themselves, given the successive missed targets on their budgets.

A year ago, then-finance minister Kevin Falcon sent a letter to his cabinet colleagues insisting that they cannot announce capital projects without prior budget approval.

It was an edict designed to curb the "level of enthusiasm" shown by the Premier and others for splashy spending announcements.

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The current Finance Minister, Mike de Jong, has maintained that vetting process, and every proposed fiscal announcement is scrutinized by his finance officials.

Still, eagerness sometimes triumphs. When the Premier went to Penticton, B.C., late in March, the script called for a $2-million commitment for a study on building a new hospital wing. But when asked by CBC Radio whether her government was committed to building the project, the Premier replied, "Absolutely."

The Treasury Board hasn't explicitly given approval for the Penticton hospital expansion. Rather, the government is saying that somewhere in the three-year, $2.3-billion envelope for health-sector capital projects, there could be $180-million to spring for the province's share of a new tower.

Of course, if her Liberals lose the May 14 election, they won't be around to deal with these capital commitments.

NDP finance critic Bruce Ralston doesn't see a New Democrat government pulling back from building schools, hospitals and roads. "Our commitment to building infrastructure is unchanged," he said in an interview. "We don't see any reduction in the need for capital projects."

He thinks there is a "pretty good case" for expanding Penticton's hospital, for example. But he says the current approval process, despite the Finance Minister's efforts, is far from rigorous.

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"They are completely undisciplined about following any orderly approval on capital projects; it is all driven by the impending election," he said. As the likely finance minister should the NDP win the next election, he is particularly worried about being locked into capital projects determined by the Liberals, leaving little room for projects that the NDP might prefer.

And that is the advantage of incumbency. As government, the Liberals can stick shovels in the ground, and every time they do, the New Democrats have fewer opportunities to make promises of their own.

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