Vaughn Palmer: Legislature seeks record budget hike

Opinion: Budget for the chamber includes work on IT upgrades, provision for adding 6 more MLAs in next election, and a daycare centre

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VICTORIA — The B.C. legislature is seeking a budget boost of $29 million, a record increase of almost 30 per cent for what is scheduled to be an election year.

The money will pay the cost of adding six more MLAs, provide transition funding for retiring members, upgrade information technology and underwrite the construction of a child-care centre on the grounds of the legislature.

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The full budget request was approved last week by the all-party legislative assembly management committee. Only the Opposition B.C. United objected to the inclusion of a $4 million guesstimate for the information technology upgrades.

The $129.7 million budget submission, up from last year’s $100.3 million, goes to the Ministry of Finance, which is expected to approve it for inclusion in the 2024-25 provincial budget.

But if ever Treasury Board staff were inclined to take a second look at a submission from the assembly, this should be the year.

By the halfway point of the current financial year in September, the assembly reported it was overspending its capital budget by $2.3 million.

The almost 40 per cent overrun was mostly attributed to the soaring cost of a seismic upgrade of the front steps at the legislature and the construction of two fire escapes at the rear of the building.

Assembly staff assured the management committee that “we continue to work with the Ministry of Finance to develop a process to allow for better multi-year budgeting.”

There was scarce evidence of any progress in the presentation to the committee on the $4 million budget for the proposed upgrade of the legislature’s computer software.

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The committee was told the goal is to replace “a patchwork of manual processes, internally developed custom systems and an antiquated system with a new … system to perform core financial management, payroll and human resource functions.”

“The $4 million is not the total project cost,” the clerk of the legislature, Kate Ryan-Lloyd, advised the committee. “This is intended to be a placeholder to enable us to undertake this work but it is likely to continue into the next fiscal year.”

B.C. United house leader Todd Stone asked what was the rush to budget the money when the actual cost was unknown.

These systems “are hugely expensive,” said Stone, who ran a software company before he was elected to the legislature. “They are never on budget.

He predicted the eventual cost would be “a heckuva lot more” than the placeholder estimate from the assembly.

“It is asking a bit much of this committee to ask us to sign off on a $4 million line item on a budget without actually having a business case in front of us that’s central to the actual request that is being made today.”

Green house leader Adam Olsen expressed reservations as well. “It is important that we don’t notionally approve a budget. We approve the budget or we don’t approve the budget.”

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Later Olsen said he was satisfied with the rationale for including the estimate in the budget.

Stone made a motion to sever the $4 million line item from the rest of the budget. The New Democrats voted him down.

“We’ve beaten this one to death,” said Stone, asking only that his opposition and that of B.C. United MLA Lorne Doerkson be noted in the minutes.

Later he put out a news release, blasting the New Democrats and Bruce Banman, the B.C. Conservative MLA on the committee, for issuing a “$4 million blank cheque.”

In contrast to the guessed-at budget for the IT upgrade, the capital budget includes $650,000 for a business plan on the options for replacing or upgrading the 130-year-old Armoury building next to the legislature.

The project is of more than passing interest to me since my office is there. But I am told it will be years before the replacement project (estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars) will be underway, never mind completed.

The budget includes $1.6 million in capital and $100,000 in operating funding for a 37-space child care centre on the grounds of the legislature. Spaces will be available to those who work in the buildings, with any left over open to families in the vicinity. It is not expected to be open until 2025 at the earliest.

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Almost $14 million of the budget is attributed to election-related costs, including adding six more MLAs, the largest increase in almost 40 years. There’s money, too, for more staffing, support, and constituency offices.

Based on past experience, the assembly is budgeting for a one-third turnover in the ranks of MLAs, with $4 million to cover transition allowances, retraining and other costs.

The assembly does expect to save some money on sittings next year. The New Democrats shortened the spring session by two weeks and put off any plans for a fall session since the election is scheduled for Oct. 19.

But the budget includes enough funding for eight weeks of sittings over the last month of 2024 and the first three months of 2025, in case the winner wants to hit the ground running on a postelection agenda.

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