VICTORIA – The B.C. legislature is getting set for a spring session from the last week of April through May.
Premier Christy Clark has kept her options open and held her cards close since winning the B.C. Liberal leadership in February. She announced Monday that she is seeking the nomination to fill the seat vacated by Gordon Campbell, with a byelection expected in May.
But a byelection would have had to be called by now to put Clark back on the front bench in time for the start of the spring session. And there are two legislative tasks that won’t wait: passing a $40-billion budget for the fiscal year that has already started, and changing the format and date of the harmonized sales tax referendum that has been announced for June.
A spring session must begin with the new premier coaching from the sidelines, but assuming Clark wins in Vancouver-Point Grey, it sets up her triumphant return to square off with the new NDP leader in question period before the session ends in early June.
A mail-in ballot for the HST referendum will allow several weeks for responses to be sent in. The government now says it will be August before the result is known.
Clark has indicated she wants the HST question decided before a general election is called. Thus a September vote becomes the most likely scenario.
The launch of TV ads by both B.C. parties is another sign of election preparations. Any new leader wants to take advantage of a honeymoon period that might be brief, and Clark’s upbeat ads with the tagline “this is just the start” set the tone.
NDP leadership candidate John Horgan talks about looking forward to a campaign where he hands out brochures with his picture, not Campbell’s. But the policy-challenged opposition has offered up another attack ad featuring, you guessed it, a picture of Campbell on a cereal box.
For the B.C. Liberals, the policy hits keep coming. First it was increasing the minimum wage, and now Clark’s “families first” machine is moving on BC Hydro.
Rich Coleman has a well-earned reputation for getting things done and he has wasted no time since Clark assigned him to the energy file. BC Hydro will continue with its application to raise rates nearly 10 per cent this year, but Coleman has begun a review aimed at paring back that and future increases expected to total 50 per cent by 2016.
Coleman quickly determined that delaying the imminent launch of BC Hydro’s smart grid project would be a false economy. Instead, he focused on a hugely expensive seismic upgrade, to the Ruskin Dam in the Fraser Valley. A major upgrade to the John Hart Dam on the Campbell River will likely go ahead, since the reservoir is also the city of Campbell River’s water supply, but Coleman wants BC Hydro to “restate its business case” for that and other big construction projects.
The Ruskin project is budgeted at about $800 million and is the type of project that can encounter costly surprises when digging into the dirt. Coleman has directed BC Hydro to look at decommissioning the old dam instead.
Did he really “direct” BC Hydro? Here’s what Coleman told me.
“It’s still Hydro’s decision at the end of the day I suppose, but certainly they’re going to have to report in to me on it, because I told them they have to.”
Coleman has also appointed three senior bureaucrats to find options for savings in BC Hydro’s plan, and to report back to him by the end of June.
That will give the government enough time to craft a rate relief program for BC Hydro customers, just in time for September.
Tom Fletcher is legislative reporter and columnist for Black Press and BCLocalnews.com.