With 15 years representing Kootenay East, MLA Bill Bennett has been involved in the planning of many provincial budgets over the years.
However, the 2016 plan unveiled by Finance Minister Mike De Jong on Tuesday is one that Bennett says he is especially proud of.
“For me, this was the kind of budget that makes you feel good about being an MLA and being 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.”
Notable bullet points from the budget include:
• The Liberal government presented a balanced budget—their fourth consecutive balanced budget.
• The budget is projecting a $264 million surplus for 2016-2017.
• Aimed primarily at the ridiculous housing costs in Metro Vancouver, the budget is exempting property transfer tax for new homes worth up to $750,000.
• $217 million was earmarked for the Ministry of Children and Family Development to implement recommendations from the Plecas Report.
• Changes were made to Medical Services Plan premiums (MSP), as single-parent families will see some relief, while couples will see some increases to their fees.
• $100 million put into a Prosperity Fund, which will be used as a ‘rainy day’ fund, with a minimum 50 per cent going to debt reduction.
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 spending on social programs, Bennett noted that $673 million is being divvied up for vulnerable youth and families, adults in need and people with disabilities.
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.”
So that means single parent earning up to $42,000 a year will save up to $1,200 on MSP, while a single senior will save $324 and senior couples earning up to $51,000 will save $480.
“The upshot of the changes to MSP mean that almost half of the people in the province—we’ve got 4.7 million people—almost half of them will not pay any MSP,” Bennett said.
He also added that health care spending is an ‘elephant in the room’.
“Only Switzerland and Sweden are rated higher by the Conference Board of Canada for the quality of health care delivered to their citizens than us here in B.C,” he said.
“So we’re keeping the costs restrained as much as we can, going up three per cent annually. Health care is the elephant in the room if you don’t really watch it and take care of it, it can take over your whole provincial budget as it has in many provinces.”
A few budget items closer to home included a previously announced $75 million Rural Dividend Fund for single-resource communities in transition, such as Canal Flats, which is dealing with the aftermath of the closure of a sawmill.
There will be $55 million going towards flood mitigation and prevention, which Bennett hopes he can dip into for some work in the Elk Valley.
In what has become a topical subject for highway drivers, Bennett said that $26 million is being earmarked for highway maintenance, adding that with a new contract incoming for 2017, there will be more money to pursue higher standards.
“Whomever wins the bid that’s out for the highway maintenance in the East Kootenay, there will be more money in that contract and that means there will be higher standards for winter maintenance in the new contract, so I think there are a lot of people who will appreciate that,” Bennett said.
In the neighbouring riding of Columbia River-Revelstoke, NDP MLA Norm Macdonald says the Liberals are giving with one hand and taking from the other.
He took specific aim at the Prosperity Fund, which was a proposed $100 billion fund to be established from Liquid Natural Gas revenues.
“It’s completely bogus,” Macdonald 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.”
MacDonald also took aim at the changes to MSP premiums, noting that while children are no longer being charged, it stands as an overall rate increase.
“The MSP will pull in over $100 million this year,” Macdonald said. “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.”
With files from Carolyn Grant and the Kimberley Daily Bulletin