The B.C. budget; differing perspectives

Smoke and mirrors, says MLA Macdonald; a budget to be proud of says MLA Bennett

Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald

Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald

The government gives with one hand and takes away with the other, says Columbia River Revelstoke MLA Norm Macdonald of the 2016 Budget brought down by the provincial BC Liberal government this week.

The government news release on the budget announced that fiscal discipline and new investments support B.C. families, jobs and communities.

Highlights of the budget include $143 million over three years to enhance key areas of the B.C. economy that support jobs in communities, including the new $75-million Rural Dividend Program to help small communities strengthen and diversify their economies; Changes to Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums and enhanced premium assistance effective Jan. 1, 2017, will help lower-income families, individuals, and seniors with the cost of living. All children will be exempted from MSP premiums.

A portion of the dividend derived from the government’s strengthening economy, fiscal discipline, and reduction in operating debt will be used to establish the B.C. Prosperity Fund.

But when you look into these promises, Macdonald says it’s all smoke and mirrors.

For instance the Prosperity Fund.

“It’s completely bogus,” he said. “It really bothers me that they are being so fundamentally dishonest. The promise in 2012 was the first LNG plant up and running by 2015. The Premier promised that LNG money would get rid of debt and create this prosperity fund. So they created this $100 million fantasy fund by taking the money from general revenue, then using $75 million of it to fund government services and debt. And they say the $25 million is for the future. Now $25 million is a lot of money to you and me but in a multi billion dollar operation like the government budget, it’s not much.

“When the government puts energy into trying to fool the public, you should be worried.”

As for children no longer being charged for MSP premiums, yes it’s helpful, Macdonald says, but…

“It doesn’t kick in this year and there is an overall rate increase. The MSP will pull in over $100 million this year. It’s a significant funding tool for this government. And it’s a flat tax. Jimmy Pattison pays the same as someone working at a pharmacy. Medical service premiums bring in more money than forestry, mining and natural gas.

“At a time when they are lowering taxes for the wealthiest two per cent, BC Hydro, ICBC, MSP are all going up. The middle class gets nailed again and again.”

Macdonald also says that Vancouver’s over-heated housing market is distorting GDP numbers meaning the claim of British Columbia being an ‘island of prosperity’ is somewhat misleading.

“For rural B.C. these are tough times. Commodity prices are down. Mines have closed. In our area, we lost the Canal Flats mill. There is nothing going on in natural gas. The reality is there are significant challenges for rural B.C. They’ve put together a rural diversity fund of $25 million that is supposed to be available. We will watch and see. One’s always a bit suspicious in a pre-election period, but it’s possible.

“This budget clearly does not address the issues that face the people I represent. For instance, the much needed Trans Canada Highway upgrade remains essentially unfunded, despite numerous announcements and promises that this was a priority for the government,” continued Macdonald. “The people of Columbia River Revelstoke deserve better; they deserve a government that actually listens to and cares about their priorities.”

Bill Bennett, MLA for the neighbouring Kootenay East riding sees it quite differently.

“For me, this was the kind of budget that makes you feel good about being an MLA and being in public service,” said Bennett. “I’ve had about three budgets in my 15 years where I really felt that we were at that point in time where we had worked pretty hard to balance previous budgets—this is our fourth consecutive balanced budget—and it gives us some latitude to actually spend some money.

“We still put 50 per cent of the surplus towards debt, but we have some money that we can then spend on things that are important…

“I’m really pleased with the budget, it’s probably one of my most favourite budgets over my 15 years because of the fact that we can afford to help the people who really need our help.”

Bennett touted some projections from the Economic Forecast Council, which noted that B.C.’s economy will grow 2.5 per cent in 2016, which will lead Canada. He also added that the province is the last jurisdiction in Canada with a AAA credit rating, which has a significant impact on paying off provincial debt.

Big-ticket spending items will include a $12 billion infrastructure program over three years.

“Over the next three years, we’re going to spend $12 billion on infrastructure, so that’s on the health side, post-secondary, K-12 education, highways, bridges, everything that’s needed for infrastructure.

That’s an unprecedented level of infrastructure investment,” said Bennett. “It’s the most ever.”

For health care, provincial spending is going up three precent, however, the headline-grabbing news was changes to MSPs, which are aimed at reducing fees for single-parent families, said Bennett.

“Essentially what we’ve done is make it more fair,” Bennett said. “There was, I think, an unfairness in the MSP system in that single parent families pay proportionally more for MSP than a couple of two. So we smoothed that out so that a couple of two pays the full cost of MSP for two people and that means we can give a break to the single-parent family.”

With files from Trevor Crawley