Tabling a fifth consecutive balanced budget, especially in advance of a provincial election, was something Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett could talk fulsomely about.
Bennett spoke to media in his riding following BC Liberal Finance Minister Mike de Jong’s bringing down a budget filled with tax breaks and spending initiatives, Tuesday, Feb. 21.
“It shows how you can deliver benefits to the people of the province if you are careful and prudent and don’t spend more than you have to, and do the things you can do to reduce your costs, but also the things you can do to increase investments in the province,” Bennett said.
“But more importantly, in a position where we can afford to do a lot of important things in terms of health care and education and investment in infrastructure, some reduction of costs for some of our resource industries, and lot of investment in children and families, mental health.
“You can do all of that, and you can do it with money that you actually have to spend without creating a deficit and adding more to the debt. That’s the bottom line here.”
High on the list of positives for Bennett was the announcement Medical Services Plan [MSP] premiums would be cut by half next year, and eliminate them entirely in future years.
“This will help people feel they’re being treated more fairly, and it’s one of the ways we could put money back into people’s pockets,” Bennett said.
“We’ve only got 4.5 million people in the province — two million of them now will pay no MSP, and two million will pay half has much as before, and those people fortunate enough to earn over $120,000 a year will continue to pay more than everyone.”
The 50 per cent reduction would take effect Jan. 1, 2018 for families with a net income of up to $120,000. That would save an individual paying full premiums $450 a year and an average family of four up to $900. For lower-income B.C. residents, the threshold for paying MSP premiums would rise by $2,000, exempting individuals making up to $26,000 a year and families earning up to $35,000.
The government is also proposing to take the provincial sales tax off business electricity bills over the next two years.
“The reduction of PST off electricity is huge for all of the resource industries,” Bennett said. “It’s going to mean tens of millions of dollars to a company like Teck. It’s going to mean a lot to the forest industry — the Canfor operations, the Galloway Lumber operations, all the small forest companies and the big forest companies, it’s going to mean a lot to the oil and gas and LNG industry.
“This particular tax change was identified by business in British Columbia as the one thing that would make the biggest difference in terms of keeping them healthy and securing jobs in those industries.”
Other budgets highlights include:
1. MSP premium cut: Savings of up to $900 a year for families paying the maximum premium.
2. Education: $740 million over three years for K-12 schools.
3. PST proposed to be taken off business electricity bills.
4. Housing: First-time buyers exemption from transfer tax rises to $500,000.
5. Growth: A forecast of 2.1 per cent economic growth, slightly less than average of advisors.
6. Business tax cut: Small business corporate income tax drops from 2.5 to 2.0 per cent, becoming the second lowest in the country.
7. Disability assistance rate increase, of $50 a month for more than 100,000 people, worth $199 million.
8. B.C. student loan interest cut down to prime rate.
9. Ministry of children and families receives $287 million — nearly half of which will help aboriginal children.
10. Dark clouds: Finance minister warns strong B.C. exports right now could be “a blip” depending on protectionism of U.S. President Donald Trump.
“There is no other province in the country that’s balancing the budget,” Bennett added. “I can tell you it’s not easy to do. And that’s a great way to go into the next provincial election.
“Our operating debt has come down by 90 per cent since 2013, and if we keep doing what we’re doing we’ll have our operating debt totally paid off by 2020 or 2021 — it will be the first time since 1955 in B.C. that we’ll have had no operating debt.”
Bennett said that B.C.’s AAA credit rating, and low debt to GDP speak volumes.
“Debt to GDP is the best indication of the economy’s general health. We have a 16.1 debt to GDP ratio. Ontario’s is 40.3, Quebec is 48, and Canada is 38. So we’re by far the healthiest economies in the country, and arguably one of the healthiest economies in the world.”