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No big bells and whistles: B.C. NDP holds course as Budget 2019 builds on prior promises

Last Updated Feb 19, 2019 at 9:38 pm PST

(Lasia Kretzel, NEWS 1130 Photo)

VICTORIA (NEWS 1130) – The B.C. government isn’t offering up any significant new investments, as it unveils its 2019 provincial budget.

Rather, the B.C. NDP is holding steady and continuing on its course, with B.C.’s finance minister saying balance and affordability are key aspects of Budget 2019.

There’s an emphasis on supporting families and in turn strengthening the economy, as was expected, with tax breaks and money back into your wallet just some of the perks.

Budget 2019 highlights several key areas, including childcare, housing, healthcare, and a greener B.C.

The focus is to create opportunities so people can reach their full potential, Finance Minister Carole James added.

Meantime, for the first time in decades, the province has eliminated its operating debt.

“I think the biggest piece in getting rid of the operating debt is that those resources can be used for programs and services and supports,” James said, adding credit has also been given to the previous government for its work to bring the debt down.

However, she also highlighted the different approaches between the NDP and Liberals when it comes to dealing with a surplus.

“To us, having a surplus simply for the sake of a surplus without having supports in place for people doesn’t make good sense,” she said. “Having the operating debt paid off means we can utilize through supplementary estimates the dollars and the resources when the economy is doing well to support people in British Columbia.”

The province is also the only one with a AAA credit rating from three different rating agencies, yet another reason the NDP is giving itself a pat on the back.

Families first

Changes for families include a replacement of the Early Childhood Tax Benefit (ECTB) with the B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit, “which will provide parents up to $28,000 over a child’s upbringing,” helping families raise their children with the opportunities “they need to thrive.”

The ECTB will be replaced by the B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit in October of 2020.

The new B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit will, in effect, expand the ECTB, offering more money to low and mid-income families, while extending support from the time a child is born until they are 18 years old. Under the current ECTB system, support is only available to eligible families until a child turns six.

The eligibility cut off for families is also changed under the B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit, with the new income eligibility dropping to $97,487 as an annual income per family for one child, and $114,487 as an annual income per family for two.

The maximum amount an eligible family with one child can receive is $1,600. For families with two children, the amount is up to $2,600.

“Parents are struggling to choose between their family and their career,” James said. “That’s not a choice that any young family should have to make.”

Taking jabs at the former Liberal government, James touted a balanced budget, saying the former government forgot important values that put people at the centre of the government’s work.

“For young families, housing is one challenge that has made it a struggle to build a life here,” James said. “Another is child care. Too many parents have been unable to find quality care for their children, and even if they are lucky enough to find a sport, the cost can be overwhelming.”

The province has announced an $85 million investment to support children in care, but it still doesn’t include the long-promised $10 a day daycare plan that’s been promoted by the B.C. NDP since the provincial election.

For now, the province said it is increasing support payments for foster parents, adoptive parents, and even extended family members who are caring for relatives’ children.

It is continuing with its plan announced last year, with more than $1 billion having been allocated to childcare in Budget 2018.

That money is being spent through the Affordable Childcare Benefit and other initiatives and fee reductions over three years.

Meantime, Budget 2019 also highlights lowering taxes for families.

“An average family of four earning $60,000 will see their net provincial taxes reduced by 60 per cent, putting more than $2,500 back in the pockets of those families,” James explained.

Affording to live here

Housing affordability was a major focus of the B.C. NDP’s 2018 budget, and with no significant new initiatives listed in Budget 2019, a major election promise is once again noticeably missing from the government’s financial outlook.

Despite being promised, a $400 renters rebate has not made it into Budget 2019. However, James insisted work is still being done to make the rebate a reality.

“I think we’ve made a number of moves around tenants and support for tenants,” she said. “That includes everything from cancelling the four per cent rent increase and lowering that for two per cent.”

She cited other programs and initiatives as supports for renters in the meantime, while British Columbians await the rebate.

“Considering we haven’t quite got to two years yet, in 18 months I’d say we’ve done a fair bit,” James added.

In keeping with the theme of making life more affordable for British Columbians, however, a number of other funding initiatives, tax benefits, and taxes are included in the budget.

“One year ago, we tabled our first full budget,” James said. “It put people back at the centre of government’s work. After 16 years of cutting services and prioritizing the few at the top, Budget 2018 finally offered a hand-up for middle-class British Columbians who had been left on the outside looking in.”

Budget 2019 also includes funding for community-run rent banks that provide those in need with short-term loans with “little to no interest.”

“Too many people in our province are just a paycheque away from poverty,” James said, pointing to the ongoing affordability crisis, claiming the “last government chose to look the other way as B.C.’s housing market spiralled out of control.”

Much of the focus of Budget 2019 is building on previous work. That includes increasing supply, while increasing affordability for those who live in this province.

Budget 2019 also includes an investment of $76 million for a “province-wide homelessness action plan.”

This money, James explained, will go toward buying more land and building more modular homes for those most vulnerable.

The B.C. NDP also plans to completely eliminate MSP premiums for all British Columbians, starting January 1, 2020.

This comes after the party cut premiums by 50 per cent since taking office. Savings, once premiums are completely eliminated, are expected to put as much as $1,800 back into families’ pockets.

As part of Budget 2019, interests on B.C. student loans will also be eliminated. Interest rates were dropped last year, and the complete elimination takes effect immediately. By eliminating interest rates, someone who has $28,000 in combined provincial and federal loans is expected to save about $2,300 over the 10-year repayment period.

Budget 2019 also sees an additional $50 per month increase to income and disability assistance rates. That means the total rate increases to $150 per month, since the 2017 Budget Update.

Acknowledging that more needs to be done to make income and disability assistance more accessible, James said an addition $26 million dollars is being invested to make benefits fairer, and “to respect people’s disability.”

All of these affordability initiatives, including those under childcare, make up parts of the province’s Poverty Reduction Strategy. Each initiative aims to tackle and address various topics. The province is expected to unveil its actual strategy this spring.

Healthcare

As has previously been announced, the province has $4.4 billion invested over three years to expand and upgrade hospitals, including equipment and health information management systems.

As part of the province’s plan, the hiring of doctors, nurses, and other medical practitioners is already underway. According to James, the basics of our society are rooted in healthcare and education.

Budget 2019 will also provide additional funding, of about $74 million to be spent over three years, to “enhance mental health and addictions services” for children, youth, and young adults.

The money will be spent to improve access to care and ending the stigma associated with mental health and addiction.

Work is still also underway to tackle the ongoing opioid crisis, which has claimed countless lives across British Columbia. More than $300 million has already been invested in trying to “help stem the tide of the overdose crisis,” James added.

Going green: CleanBC

In an effort to build what James has called a strong, sustainable, low-carbon economy for the future, the province has announced a “historic” $902 million investment over three years.

CleanBC, the province’s climate action plan, was introduced in December. The aim is to reduce climate pollution, with incentives for British Columbians including money back into your wallet through tax incentives and benefits.

Through its more than $900 million investment, the province says it’s aiming to make things like cleaner transportation options more affordable.

Under Budget 2019, a British Columbian can save up to $6,000 with the purchase of a zero-emission vehicle, with an estimated saving of about $1,500 a year in fuel costs.

The total three-year funding will also look to increase energy efficiency in homes and buildings around B.C., as well as support the reduction of carbon emissions in industries.

Of the $902 million dollar investment, about $223 million is expected to be allocated to tax credits.

Revenue-sharing between B.C. First Nations-province

A big line item in Budget 2019 includes what the province describes as a “historic revenue-sharing agreement” between the First Nations Leadership Council and the B.C. government.

About $3 billion dollars has been allocated over 25 years, to be shared with local First Nations communities.

Each community will be eligible for between $250,000 and $2 million per year through the agreement, with each community setting out its own priorities for how the money can be spent.

The funding, as per Budget 2019, can be used for things like health and wellness, housing, infrastructure, environmental protections and economic development.

“The B.C. government is finally implementing a long-awaited agreement to share gaming revenue that will enable First Nations the opportunity to prioritize critically important community issues that have long hindered their beneficial development,” Grand Chief Joe Hall, the former chair of the B.C. First Nations Gaming Commission said.

Currently, gaming revenue in British Columbia is distributed between a Health Special account, community gaming grants, and local governments where the revenue is generated.

According to the province, $1.391 billion in net revenue generated through gaming activities was collected in 2017-18.