The provincial government released its annual budget earlier last week, attracting all manner of commentary and analysis scrutinizing the measures included in it.
Some of the most attention-grabbing of those measures included the government’s promise to cutMedical Service Plan (provincial health care) premiums in half for families with incomes of less than$120,000 starting in 2018; more than $320 million in new education spending over the next three years; more than $287 million over the next three years to help the Ministry of Children and FamilyDevelopment support children and youth; corporate tax cuts for small businesses; a promise for more day care spaces; and $400 million (for last year’s budget surplus) going to the province’sProsperity Fund
Some commentators and a slew of press releases from various provincial government ministries touted the budget’s measures and lauded it for being B.C.’s fifth consecutive balanced budget.The B.C. Chamber of Commerce, for one, congratulated the government, with Chamber president and chief executive office Val Letwin saying the government “has been practicing great business fundamentals — balancing budgets and investing in a more diversified economy — and this means they can now roll out bolder investments, laser-focused tax credits and a deeply competitive tax structure that gives businesses the choice to invest and hire more British Columbians.”
An opposing barrage of commentary came from critics who said that half-price MSP premiums still leave B.C. as the only province that makes residents pay for health care through personal invoices;and that the extra education funding was not government largesse, but rather was mandated by the Supreme Court of Canada after a decade-and-half legal battle with the provincial teachers ’union. The critics also charge that the money for youth and children only came after the Ministry of Children and Family Development was lambasted by the outgoing B.C. Representative forChildren and Youth; and that the Prosperity Fund was meant to already be filled by revenue from the liquid natural gas (LNG) industry.
Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald, a member of the NDP Opposition (who will be stepping down come the provincial election this May), was among those critical of most aspects of the budget.
“It’s a pre-election budget and people need to view it as such and question whether or not these promises will be followed through. It’s an attempt to make people forget what’s been done earlier in the government’s term. There’s a long history of the B.C. Liberals making promises and then,after the election, doing something like introducing the HST,” said Macdonald.
He pointed out that while the current government is promising to cut MSP premiums, the same government had earlier raised them.
“We saw these rises a number of times, and this drop will essentially just bring (MSP) back to where it was before Premier Clark came to power. It’s a bit of a shell game, to say you’re making this big cut when really you’re just taking it back to where it was when you began,” said Macdonald. “With the education funding, they makes it sound like it was their idea, but they are simply following a court order to rectify issues created earlier in their mandate. Let’s not forget they spent millions of taxpayer dollars over many years trying not have to spend this education money.”
He also went on the offensive about the government’s promise in the budget to cut — then in two years eliminate — PST for hydro electricity for businesses, saying “prior to 2013, the Liberals were talking about getting rid of PST completely — what happened to that?”
Macdonald continued, pointing out that Prosperity Fund “has no LNG money in it because there isno LNG money period. It’s been a complete flop” and saying that while the budget may be“balanced” in terms of operating debt, that is only one aspect of overall debt, and “the debt hasgrown more under this premier than any other premier.”
Columbia River-Revelstoke Liberal candidate Doug Clovechok sees the budget in a much different light.
“It’s a robust budget, it’s a great budget. But what’s important is that it’s the fifth consecutive balanced budget; no other government in Canada has done that. These things don’t just happen.It’s the result of fiscal prudence and that’s why we are leading the country in growth and job creation,” said Clovechok.
He addressed the MSP premiums criticism, saying “the premier has said all along that she want to get rid of MSP premiums. But it’s been around a long time, so it’s going to take some time to turn the ship around. Our goal is to eliminate MSP (premiums) completely down the road, based on financial reality. The NDP seem to think you can just eliminate MSP completely with the flick of a switch, but I ask them — how are you guys going to do that? How are you going to pay for that?They never have that understanding.”
Clovechok cited the cut in MSP premiums, the reduction and eventual elimination of PST on electricity for business, and the cutting of small business tax from 2.5 per cent to two per cent as“having enormous impact on small businesses and residents here in the Kootenay region. It will put money back in people’s pockets and it will lead to more jobs.”
More money for backcountry recreation sites, for the forestry and for mines were other budget items Clovechok said would make a big impact in the Kootenay region.
He also addressed the education money, saying “when I hear people saying we’ve failed oureducation system, I don’t buy it. We’re doing really well. We’ve invested in education all the way.We use to spend $6,000 per student, now we spend $9,000 per student. With the money outlinedin the budget, which, yes, does stem from the Supreme Court decision, we will hire more teachersand we’ll see the impact in kindergarten to Grade 12 all across the province.”
Columbia River-Revelstoke NDP candidate Gerry Taft voiced similar sentiments to Macdonald,saying “I don’t think people are going to be tricked by any Christy Clark budget released on theeve of an election. Four years ago, heading into the last election, the B.C. Liberals told us that B.C.would become debt-free and that we would have a booming LNG industry. And four years ago,Clovechok, who is running once again for the B.C. Liberals, was touting the economic benefits ofthe Jumbo Resort and defending a municipality with no population. I believe that people in thisregion will react to B.C. Liberal spin today in the same way they did in 2013. They just won’t buy it.”
Taft also questioned how the Liberals can call the budget balanced.
“How can we call this budget balanced when the most vulnerable in our society aren’t beingproperly cared for? When the mental health and addictions crises in our communities are onlygetting lip service rather than the real funding and the real solutions that are needed? Whenhousing and living costs are increasing much faster than wages and economic growth?” he asked.“One major budget announcement related to Medical Services Plan fees — after doubling MSP premiums, Christy Clark now says she’s going to reduce them by 50 per cent. But Christy Clark’s promise isn’t for everyone, and it isn’t right away. Compare that with the B.C. NDP’s promise to eliminate MSP premiums entirely.”
“This budget is a cynical attempt to get people to forget all the damage that has been done by thisgovernment over the last 16 years. The B.C. Liberals are continuing to favour large businesses andthe wealthy while completely ignoring regular people.”
Kimberley-based independent Columbia River-Revelstoke candidate Justin Hooles also thought calling the budget “balanced” was disingenuous.
“It’s obviously an election year budget. It contains some nice things, such as reducing the MSP premiums. But it falls short on a lot social assistance measures and we’re not seeing any of the money they promised to put into public transit,” said Hooles. “I would like to see our budget talk about the whole financial picture of B.C. They’re talking about operational debt, but balancing that doesn’t really mean anything if you’ve got Crown corporations deeply in debt — and we do. BCHydro is $17.9 billion in debt. So it’s (the budget) just transferring debt from one pile to another and the government then looking for a pat on the back for that. When people hear the term‘balanced budget’, they tend to think that debt is not growing, but here in B.C. that’s not what’s happening. They’re saying ‘balanced budget’ but debt is growing.”
Hooles also added that the budget promises need to be taken with a grain of salt since the budget will not be passed until the fall — after the provincial election.