Commentary: Highlight reel from the 2017 B.C. budget (February 23, 2017)

by Dermod Travis,

 

If last year’s provincial budget could be described as petty, after Finance minister Mike de Jong doled out an increase in assistance rates for those living with disabilities, only to claw must of it back by ending the subsidized bus pass program, this year’s budget could best be described as petulant.

This is de Jong’s “I don’t want to, but I will because it’s an election year” budget.

There were some positive measures: reducing the interest rate charged on student loans by 2.5 per cent is a good step and reducing the PST on electricity for businesses – towards its eventual elimination – is a positive move as well.

Most of it, however, comes across as a good old college try at throwing a bit of money at anything political – one-time funding if possible – but not enough to actually address any one of the problems.

The budget noted that B.C. saw a net in-flow of 50,306 people during the first nine months of 2016 and then a few pages on boasted of its investment in affordable housing.

The government’s plan will see 4,900 new units built over five-years, less than a quarter of the number brought in by former premier Gordon Campbell over his 10-years in office.

The $100 billion B.C. Prosperity Fund charade continues apace with another $400 million tossed into the kitty. $99.5 billion left to go.

In the 2013 Throne Speech, Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon told the assembled that: “Future natural gas royalties will be designated to this fund, ensuring British Columbia families can benefit from the prosperity created.”

Last year, natural gas royalties brought in $159 million.

Guichon also noted that the government “spends approximately $2.4 billion (annually) on interest to service the total provincial debt.”

It spends $2.68 billion today.

Turns out a not so funny thing happened along the road towards a Debt-Free B.C., the province’s debt has actually grown under Premier Christy Clark by $21.5 billion, from $45.15 billion in 2010/11 to $66.666 billion in 2016/17.

And to think the B.C. Liberal party once attacked the then-governing NDP for allowing the debt to skyrocket by “$17 billion” over 10-years.

A Debt-Free B.C.’s total debt should hit $77.7 billion by 2020 or $15,781 for “every woman, man and child,” as the Liberals put it in 2001 when they attacked the NDP over the province’s then per capita debt of $8,428.

De Jong’s fiscal petulance shines through on the MSP file, however.

In an op-ed following the release of the budget, de Jong wrote: “With Budget 2017 we intend to move to eliminate Medical Services Plan premiums.”

Intend, move, decisive verbs. Could have thrown in a hope for good measure.

De Jong went on: “As a first step, we are cutting MSP premiums in half for families and individuals with family net incomes of up to $120,000 per year, effective Jan. 1, 2018.”

“As a result, in addition to the estimated two million people who currently pay no premiums, a further two million British Columbians will see their premiums cut in half — a move that will put almost $1 billion in the pockets of middle-class British Columbians.”

Last year, MSP premiums brought in $2.5 billion. In 2018/19 – the first full fiscal year where the cuts will be in effect – they’re forecast to bring in $1.72 billion.

After the two million who will see their premiums cut in half are added to “the estimated two million” paying no premiums at all, makes one wonder how many are left to pay the full MSP freight?

There are only 4.06 million British Columbians over the age of 15.

Perhaps the government is counting on most of those who will be eligible for the cut not to know about the necessary paperwork required to receive it?

Putting “almost $1 billion in the pockets of middle-class British Columbians” is a nice touch, but it wasn’t that long ago – 2010/11 to be exact – when MSP premiums brought in the roughly $1.72 billion de Jong estimates he’ll see in 2018/19.

The post-budget scramble to try and explain the MSP measure speaks to the old adage that a camel really is a horse designed by a committee.

But don’t think those two million British Columbians are ungrateful.

Rumour has it some hefty ICBC and B.C. Hydro hikes are coming down the pipe.

 

Dermod Travis is the executive director of IntegrityBC. www.integritybc.ca

 

February 23, 2017