Gambling with other people’s money; Funding breakdown everyone’s business
by Gillian Burnett
In the frenzied runup to Tuesday’s bad-news budget, the Liberal government quietly sent out hundreds of ticking time bombs and retreated to the relative safety of their homes for the weekend.
Last Friday, dubbed “Black Friday” by the thousands of B.C. charities that depend on gaming revenues for their existence, Rich Coleman, the minister responsible for disbursing the money, sent out a memo. His message, delivered under the sunny “Best Place on Earth” logo, was to the point: Dear Community Organizations, We screwed up the numbers, so you know that cheque we said was in the mail? It isn’t.
The tone was brisk. Unapologetic. The gaming gravy train has ended, and in its place we’re funding, well, gravy. CommunityLINK, which supplies lunches to needy kids and was previously paid for by the education ministry, will be getting your money, in addition to projects supported by the B.C. Arts Council, also previously funded by the taxpayer.
Priorities have shifted, Coleman lectured, and community groups that the ministry deems expendable — environmental, adult sports groups, alumni associations, and especially “a number of arts and culture organizations” — are out of luck.
It got worse. That money hadn’t only been for future use. In most cases it had already been spent, based on formerly ironclad written guarantees that have simply been trashed by the officials who signed them.
Oh puh-lease, I hear some of our readers thinking. We’re all suffering, so why should I get upset about a bunch of fancy-pants artists when the alternative is to let kids go hungry?
Well, that’s exactly what Coleman wants you to think. That false comparison is calculated to distract from the heart of the issue: It’s not the government’s money to take away.
To understand why, we need to go back a few years.
In Canada, before there was “gaming” — a cuddly word that evokes family Scrabble nights — there was gambling.
And it was bad. So bad, in fact, that it was illegal for the first 100 years of Confederation. The only exemption was for charities, which ran lotteries, bingo halls and casinos, and reaped the profits.
Then, in 1969, a Criminal Code change allowed governments a foot in the door — but only when a worthy cause was involved. Charities were their ticket and their moral justification, and still are: Just look at the pages on the BCLC website trumpeting the motto “When you play, good things happen.”
Smelling easy money, the province, by the late 1990s, was soon kicking open that door, even while promising to set aside charities’ cut in a trust and ensure direct access to the funds. The contest between a goliath government and small, varied community interests had predictable results.
In 1997, when the province, in a reverse Robin Hood manoeuvre, tried to rob charities of $24 million to pay for its own “charitable” health and education services, the NDP government was taken to court. The following January, when then-deputy premier Dan Miller was ordered to give the money back by the Supreme Court, opposition leader Gordon Campbell summed up the decision best: “Mr. Miller had to give it back,” he declared. “It wasn’t his money. I don’t trust him, period. And I don’t think the charities should.”
In June 1999, the province signed agreements re-committing to their community partnerships. They pledged to consult the charities’ umbrella representative, the B.C. Association for Charitable Gaming (BCACG) regarding any proposed changes, and guaranteed a yearly minimum of $125 million with a view to committing fully one-third of ongoing net community casino revenue.
That was 10 years ago, when gaming revenue grossed B.C. about $525 million annually. Last year, net gaming revenue hit a high of $1.1 billion, yet the charities are getting $139 million, 11 per cent less than they got the year before. And the legitimate recipients still don’t know how much of that $139 million will be used by Coleman’s appointed illegitimate recipients.
“And yet somehow the government managed to find $39 million to promote the Olympics,” points out BCACG’s Executive Director Cheryl Ziola. The impact of the cuts is immeasurable, she says. “These cuts are going to affect hospices, daycares, playgrounds, you name it. In Prince Rupert alone there are 40 charitable organizations that rely on gaming funds to provide services.”
Most shocking of all, perhaps, is the absence of any attempt on the government’s part to minimize damage.
They could have taken away this money (that isn’t theirs to take) slowly and with warning. Instead, they knocked the door down and set fire to the furniture, killing some organizations and crippling others. Some groups had multi-year funding in place, only to be told they were broke.
Wednesday, by which time rumblings about potential lawsuits had no doubt reached the ears of government lawyers, Finance Minister Colin Hansen experienced a sudden (partial) change of heart: Our mistake, he said. We’ll honour those multi-year agreements after all, representing a reinvestment of $20 million over the next two years.
Reached for reaction, BCACG’s Cheryl Ziola said, “The fact is, they’re still not fulfilling their funding agreement, and we’re going to keep hammering on that.” Plus, she pointed out, they made this sudden decision with absolutely no consultation whatsoever.
What about those organizations that didn’t have a multi-year deal? Well, it’s their problem, along with their creditors, their laid-off employees, the venues they’d booked next season that will now sit empty — and, in many cases, the taxpayer, who would have seen a $1.38 return in tax revenue for every dollar invested in the arts. And keep in mind, these dollars aren’t coming out of taxes to start with.
In effect, the Liberals have handily dumped a portion of B.C.’s deficit onto the unsuspecting backs of the people in our communities — often volunteers — who make a daily, qualitative difference to all of our lives. All with money that isn’t theirs.
Just ask Gordon Campbell.