John Horgan's mandate letter addresses David Eby's legislative priorities, but not his revenue role

    1 of 3 2 of 3

      The NDP government has released the premier's mandate letters to his cabinet ministers. And the one sent to Attorney General David Eby suggests he'll be a busy man.

      After congratulating Eby on his appointment, Horgan wrote: "It has never been more important for new leadership that works for ordinary people, not just those at the top."

      Later in the letter Horgan stated that he expects Eby to "make substantive progress on the following priorities":

      * Introducing legislation to ban political contributions by corporations and unions, and to set limits on individual contributions.

      * Introducing legislation to hold a provincewide referendum on proportional representation in the fall of 2018.

      * Introducing legislation to reform the rules around lobbying in B.C.

      * Re-establishing the B.C. Human Rights Commission.

      * Increasing the number of court sheriffs, expanding the use of duty counsel, and increasing staffing of the Court Services Branch to address court delays.

      * Improving and supporting legal aid, including First Nations legal services, dispute resolution services for families and expanded poverty law services to increase access to justice.

      * Working with First Nations to reduce the numbers of Aboriginal people who are involved in the justice system and in jail.

      * Conducting a "comprehensive operating review" of ICBC.

      The B.C. Liberal government eliminated the B.C. Human Rights Commission, closed courthouses, and sharply slashed legal-aid funding not long after Gordon Campbell became premier in 2001.

      It's clear from the mandate letter that Eby is expected to repair some of the damage caused by those decisions.

      As the Opposition critic for liquor policy, David Eby often highlighted how craft breweries were penalized by higher Liquor Distribution Branch wholesale prices.

      Eby's revenue role not addressed in letter

      Eby is also the minister responsible for ICBC, gaming policy and enforcement, and liquor control and licensing.

      In effect, this also makes him a key NDP government revenue minister because ICBC, the Liquor Distribution Branch, and B.C Lottery Corporation each yield a windfall of money every year. This goes to pay for provincial public services.

      However, Horgan's mandate letter made no mention whether Eby should change the rules in any way to increase or decrease the amount of money flowing into government coffers from liquor sales, casino or lottery gambling, or ICBC.

      The recent budget noted that liquor revenue is projected to average more than $1 billion per year over the next three years.

      Lottery revenue is forecast to increase from $1.28 billion in this fiscal year to $1.3 billion by 2019-20.

      Each year, about 20 percent of gambling revenue is distributed to charities and local governments.

      When the NDP last controlled the government in the 1990s, it sharply expanded gambling opportunities. This created controversy, particularly among social-justice activists.

      Before being elected as an MLA, Horgan himself played a role in influencing the City of Vancouver to lift its moratorium on slot machines.

      In the premier's mandate letter to Indigenous Relations and Reconciliation Minister Scott Fraser, Horgan wrote that he should work with Finance Minister Carole James "to neogiate with First Nations leadership and communities around expanding opportunities for their share of B.C.'s gaming industry".

      Eby has a choice. Does he loosen regulations around gambling and try to force more casinos in local communities (and particularly in safe B.C. Liberal constituencies) to help increase revenues?

      Or does he tighten the rules on gambling because it's a regressive tax that can cause serious pain to lower- and middle-income families?

      More recently, the B.C Liberal government has sharply increased opportunities to drink alcohol.

      That can help the province's short-term bottom line. However, it can also lead to higher municipal policing costs, as well as higher costs in health care, corrections, and the courts.

      Here again as the "revenue minister", Eby has choices:

      * Does he adjust the rules to expand the availability of alcohol to bring in more cash?

      * Does he allow restaurants to buy wine at wholesale prices to promote employment in this sector while reducing government liquor revenues?

      * Does he recommend tax breaks for craft breweries, which employ many people in NDP constituencies, and recommend penalizing large out-of-province brewers?

      Rising ICBC accident costs will create big challenges for the NDP government.
      Charlie Smith

      ICBC's books are a problem

      ICBC isn't a revenue generator at the moment, with an average loss of $104 million forecast in each of the next three years. 

      "The outlook assumes average growth of 1.8 per cent in the number of insured vehicles and a 4.1 per cent average annual increase in current year claims costs," the budget states.

      Yesterday, Eby released an internal ICBC-commissioned report that paints a much darker picture. It notes that without an overhaul, basic ICBC insurance rates could rise by 30 percent in two years.

      The first NDP government under Dave Barrett created ICBC because private insurers were refusing to sell policies to motorists and motorcyclists whom they deemed to be high risk.

      Insurance agents went along with the idea because they were assured that they would receive good commissions.

      In recent years, however, some companies have prospered by selling supplemental collision and comprehensive insurance directly through call centres in a competitive market.

      They've done this by creaming off low-risk motorists, leaving ICBC with more high-risk drivers buying collision and comprehensive.

      At the same time, vehicles have gotten more expensive to repair. And ICBC has not gone into the business of selling basic insurance directly through call centres or online because the previous B.C. Liberal government didn't want to enrage insurance agencies, which are in most B.C. communities.

      As the minister responsible for ICBC, Eby also has options:

      * Does he maintain the status quo, not rocking the boat with private insurance agencies, and preserving jobs in communities across the province?

      * Does he instruct ICBC to get in the business of selling basic insurance directly through call centres or online, thereby reducing the Crown corporation's commission costs paid to agencies and possibly putting some of these agencies out of business?

      This is the type of issue that would be addressed in a "comprehensive operating review", as outlined in Horgan's mandate letter.

      The NDP government of the 1990s entertained the idea of implementing no-fault auto insurance to cap costs, which enraged trial lawyers. Horgan now leads a minority government, making it less likely that this idea will be revived because the NDP is going to need all the friends it can find.

      In general, the premier's letter offered pretty good insights into Eby's legislative priorities.

      But it fell far short of addessing what actions Eby might take as a key revenue minister in the new NDP government.