The NDP was served two reminders this week of the kinds of hand grenades that could blow up on them if the party takes power next spring, a scenario that still seems likely.
One of those lovely little headaches is the toll on the new Port Mann Bridge. The other is the deteriorating state of the governments finances.
As for the toll, the B.C. Liberals have moved to ensure that for many motorists who regularly use the new bridge, the toll will climb to $3 a few months after the election. The introductory toll of $1.50 will expire just before the election, but drivers who lock in to the lower toll can enjoy it for a few months after that.
In other words, the larger toll will take effect a few months into the next governments term, which means if the NDP takes power, it will have to deal with the inevitable anger that will come from the thousands of commuters who will now have to fork over more than $1,000 annually to cross back and forth across the Fraser River each day.
Theres not much the NDP (or whichever party forms the next government) can do about it. The bridges financing is tied to the toll, and presumably so are various contractual obligations associated with building the bridge and collecting the tolls.
The NDPs transportation critic, Harry Bains, wants to commission a feasibility study of putting tolls (albeit smaller ones) on other bridges in Metro Vancouver. Surrey mayor Diane Watts is pushing the idea of a regional tolling policy, to spread the financial pain around all the motorists who use bridges and thus make it a more level playing field (rather than penalize those who have to commute across the Fraser).
Once the Port Mann toll becomes a reality, the whole issue of tolling will become magnified and will be dumped into the next governments lap. Despite Bains call for a study, his party leader Adrian Dix has told me he doesnt support tolling bridges that have already been paid for.
But fiscal realities may dictate a change in his view. Public transit desperately needs a bigger revenue stream, and replacing the aging Pattullo bridge will cost in the neighbourhood of $1 billion.
You can bet the NDP will not include any mention of a tolling policy in its election platform (whenever such a thing might get released), and the entire Port Mann/toll issue has bedevilled New Democrats in the past. But they will have to face the issue head-on after a time in government.
A thornier issue, however, is how to go about righting the governments financial ship. The first quarterly report for the current fiscal year lays out the challenges facing whichever party is going to be overseeing the books over the next few years.
A dependable cash cowrevenues from natural gas salesis no more. At one point a few years back, the government collected more than $1 billion in a single year from this line item. This year, the revenue will have declined to a little more than $150 million, as a glut has taken over the North American natural gas market.
Over the next three years, the decline over what had been expected from natural gas sales will hit about $1.4 billion, which is a staggering amount of money. That will have to be made up either through tax increases or spending cuts, or a decision to simply run large deficits.
Whatever solution an NDP government hits on will likely be unpopular.
Anything more than a return to corporate tax levels set a few years ago by the B.C. Liberals (which are what the NDP is currently proposing) will be rejected by the business community, and any increase in personal income taxes will be rejected by the voters.
Spending cuts are never popular (just ask the B.C. Liberals about cutting gaming grants), and running large deficits will further exacerbate the NDPs never-ending struggle of shedding its image (however unfair) of being financial amateurs.
The NDP has given the strong impression it will increase funding substantially in areas such as K-12 education and post-secondary education, as well as in such areas as Community Living B.C. and the justice system. And of course, the health care system will continue to gobble money at an ever-increasing rate.
Something has to give here. After more than a decade in Opposition, New Democrats may soon discover just how hard governing can actually be. And they can be sure there will be more little hand grenades waiting for them if they get back into power.
Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global B.C.
© Copyright 2013