David Eby’s first spring legislative session as premier will likely include a big-spending budget that aims to put out some of the province’s biggest fires — the affordability crisis, the health-care staffing shortage, the problem of prolific offenders, and a worsening climate emergency.
Critics, however, are worried the B.C. NDP will continue to throw money at problems without measuring for outcomes.
The 11-week spring legislative session kicks off Monday when Lt.-Gov. Janet Austin reads the throne speech outlining the government’s broad vision for the year ahead. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy will present the provincial budget on Feb. 28.
Ravi Kahlon, B.C. NDP house leader and housing minister, said the government will introduce 25 bills which are likely to reflect Eby’s priorities of public safety, health care, cost-of-living measures, and climate action. This spring, the government will launch a “housing refresh strategy,” Kahlon said, which will lay out the government’s road map for boosting housing supply in B.C.
The big question is whether B.C. will get the health care cash it has been pressing Ottawa for. Eby said he had a positive meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday, but it’s unlikely the premiers will hear about a 10-year deal on the Canada Health Transfer until the spring federal budget.
However, the province will not wait for the federal government to shore up the health system, Eby told reporters after his meeting with Trudeau.
“We will address these care issues for British Columbia and with huge urgency for people who are waiting for care or are sick right now, and to make sure the care is going to be there when they need it,” he said.
The government heads into the spring session boasting a $5.7-billion surplus thanks to healthy resource revenues and $3.6 billion worth of backdated payments from Ottawa for personal and corporate income taxes.
Some of that has already been allocated. Eby’s first week as premier included $1 billion worth of announcements, including a B.C. Hydro rebate, an income-tested affordability credit, and funding to boost the ranks of the RCMP. Another $500 million has been earmarked for non-profit housing providers to purchase buildings for affordable housing.
According to a law brought in by the former B.C. Liberal government, any unspent money at the end of a fiscal year — ending March 31 — must be used to pay down the provincial debt. Eby has indicated his priorities lie with helping British Columbians navigate the affordability crisis rather than paying down the debt, which means the government is likely to commit billions worth of spending before the end of March.
When asked if he plans to spend the surplus cash, Eby said the government is focused on supporting British Columbians who are struggling to find an affordable place to live, worried about the cost of groceries, and trying to find a family doctor.
“That’s what I believe government is there for, but we’re also going to do it responsibly,” he said.
B.C. Liberal leader Kevin Falcon said the government continues to make big-spending announcements without ensuring they are having the desired outcomes.
“(The government) plans on spending over $5 billion by March 31. And I can tell you as a former finance minister, the announcements that I’ve seen thus far are notable in lacking any kind of detail,” he told Postmedia. “It’s clear to me they’re just rushing this spending through so that they have no surplus funds at the end of the year.”
Eby and his cabinet are also keenly aware that the country could be headed for a recession, reflected in pessimistic projections from private-sector forecasters that peg B.C.’s economic growth at just half a per cent this year.
Hamish Telford, a political scientist at the University of the Fraser Valley, said the government is in a “tricky situation.” It is acutely aware of the financial pressures people are under as a result of inflation, but must balance that with recession risks.
“But of course, the government providing a lot of financial help to citizens risks fuelling inflation longer,” he said.
The next provincial election is set for October 2024. Opposition parties have warned that Eby could call a snap election sooner than that, but the premier has stressed that is not in the cards.
If that is true, then Telford said he expects more “goodies” in next year’s budget compared to this year.
Eby has promised to overhaul the province’s social housing program and build homes for middle-class families through the B.C. Builds program. Last week, Eby tapped former Victoria mayor Lisa Helps to help build out that program alongside Kahlon.
However, Telford said he would be surprised if the government had enough time to pull together specific details on the B.C. Builds program in time for the budget, which started being planned last June under former finance minister Selina Robinson.
B.C. Green party leader Sonia Furstenau said the province needs a significant investment in non-market housing, including co-op and social housing. She also wants to see policies to ensure there isn’t a “perverse incentive” for the government to profit off the overheated housing market through property transfer taxes.
“(The government) has been addicted to the revenue from an overheated housing market,” she said.
Eby’s housing platform during the NDP leadership campaign included a promise to establish a flipping tax that will apply to the sale of a residential property as a mechanism to deter real estate speculators.
The tax rate, which Eby did not specify, will be highest for those who hold properties for the shortest period of time, and goes down to zero after two years.
Falcon dismissed the need for a flipping tax, saying the real estate markets are already slowing down.
He noted that other taxes introduced by the NDP government in 2017, such as the speculation tax, have not made housing more affordable for British Columbians. Falcon pointed to a recent housing affordability report from RBC which showed Metro Vancouver continues to be the least affordable place to buy a house in Canada, where a household has to earn $268,000 before tax to buy a home.
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