B.C. NDP cast budget as 'first steps' toward reform
Throne Speech promises eventual action on child care, poverty and climate, but renter rebates to be addressed Monday , report Justine Hunter and Mike Hager
Mark Nichols says he has always been non-partisan, trusting his gut when voting. But that changed in British Columbia's May 9 election after he ran into NDP Leader John Horgan on the campaign trail just two days before casting his ballot.
Mr. Nichols, a vice-president of a tech startup, and his wife, Georgia, a teacher, spotted the party leader mainstreeting at Vancouver's Granville Island and struck up a conversation about the New Democrats' pledge to implement a $10-a-day child-care plan. The couple had signed their six-month-old son Hank up for daycare waiting lists the day they got his birth certificate, but they had heard horror stories about a shortage of spaces and pricey fees in a city where their nearby rental apartment already felt far too expensive.
"It was like a magic button for us where we were like 'This would be amazing,'" Mr. Nichols said Friday of the NDP's daycare plan. He said that after they met Mr. Horgan, they realized public daycare would mean that they wouldn't have to decide "should Georgia give up her career?"
Rather than paying $800 per month to send their son to daycare twice a week, the couple settled on paying his mother-in-law to ferry over from her home on Salt Spring Island each week to stay overnight and help care for her grandson.
For Mr. Nichols and thousands of others, the NDP's campaign pledges for daycare and for measures to make life more affordable held the promise of relief. Urban voters turned away from the Liberals in droves.
But many of them will have to wait for that new vision to come into clearer view.
On Friday, the NDP delivered its first Speech from the Throne, promising to begin work on a provincewide, universal child-care program, a poverty-reduction plan and a climate-action strategy that creates new green jobs.
Those initiatives are just the beginning – the mini-budget that Finance Minister Carole James will unveil on Sept. 11 will just touch on the surface of those initiatives.
Ms. James, in an interview just ahead of her first budget, sought to dampen expectations that the affordability changes her party campaigned on last spring will be significantly addressed this fall.
"The economic predictions are positive for British Columbia." However, she said, the budget she will deliver Monday will include only "first steps" on her party's major platform commitments.
"There will be time needed for discussions, consultations, for implement plans," she said. "We want to make sure we do this right."
However, Mr. Horgan, now Premier, hinted that his promised $400-per-year rebate for renters may be coming soon: "We'll be talking about the renters' rebate in the budget on Monday," he told reporters.
Ms. James is acutely aware, though, that expectations are huge. Teachers and environmentalists are eager for change from a government whose priorities better align with theirs. Urban renters and homeowners alike who helped shift seats in Vancouver and Surrey, among other places, are looking for affordability measures.
Sharon Gregson, spokesperson for the $10-a-Day Child Care Campaign, noted there are just over half a million children in B.C. under 12, about 360,000 of them have mothers in the paid work force, yet the province only has 100,000 licensed child-care spaces.
"There's a whole lot of children, particularly infants and toddlers, who are in unlicensed or unregulated care," said Ms. Gregson, a former long-time Vancouver school board trustee.
But big-ticket items, such as the plan for $10-a-day daycare and the elimination of Medical Service Premiums, may have to wait until the next budget in February.
"People have been waiting 16 years for change to happen, but we won't be able to change 16 years overnight. That doesn't mean we shouldn't get started," Ms. James said.
Ms. James was clear that her first budget reflecting the NDP government's agenda will come in February for the next fiscal year. Monday's update of the Liberal fiscal plan is expected to mostly cover already announced changes.
The fiscal update next week will have to absorb some significant costs of the policy changes already rolled out over the past seven weeks, notably $104-million for higher income-assistance rates, and $132-million to lift the tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges over the Fraser River. But the biggest blow to the balance sheet will be the price tag for fighting wildfires this year. The cost was last pegged at $389-million over the budget estimate in February, and that figure is still growing.
The NDP government could give itself some more fiscal room by moving on its proposals to increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations and add a new tax on real estate speculators. The Throne Speech was vague on any looming tax changes, however.
"It's time that British Columbians shared in the benefits of our strong economy," the Throne Speech stated. "Help is on the way for the people of B.C."
Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver, whose agreement with the NDP cleared the way for government change after the Liberals were toppled in a confidence motion last June, said he expects the interim budget to be balanced and begin reversing the "mean-spirited" and "fiscally reckless" policies of the previous Liberal government.
His party has made it clear to the New Democrats that it opposes the move to ban tolling on Metro Vancouver bridges, but the three Green MLAs will still support the budget, he said.
"The question you got to ask is 'Do we want to have another provincial election because the NDP eliminated the tolls on the Port Mann Bridge?' I think the answer is no, that would be irresponsible for us to do that."
Although Ms. James played down the prospect of significant new investments this fall in health or education, she does have room to move. The New Democrats inherited a healthy balance sheet.
British Columbia finished the fiscal year ending in March with a $2.7-billion surplus due to significantly increased revenues. The surplus, which is 10 times higher than what the former Liberal government projected last year, does not directly affect the New Democrats' ability to pay for their election promises, since the surplus has already been applied to the provincial debt.
Ms. James said the NDP government expects the recent economic performance to continue into the current fiscal year, allowing her to maintain a balanced budget with new spending.
Ms. James says the biggest change people will notice in Monday's budget is a shift in priorities. The Liberals spent 16 years working toward balanced budgets and fiscal prudence. The economy was to be nurtured with low taxes and although the provincial debt grew dramatically, the Liberals protected the province's credit rating.
But the NDP were able to win over voters last May with a platform that promised to make life more affordable for citizens, particularly in the costly Metro Vancouver region. This fall session will emphasize that the new minority government can offer the stability required to make those promised changes over time.
Michael Prince, a professor of social policy at the University of Victoria who has studied B.C. politics for 30 years, said it will be important for Ms. James's budget speech to signal to the province's business community how her party will grow the economy after opposing numerous major resource and infrastructure projects.
"It certainly begs the question 'what do you got instead?' " he said.
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