B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong unveiled his government’s promised balanced budget Tuesday, a $44 billion document bolstered by Crown property sales, increased income tax rates and economic growth expected to continue for three years.
De Jong’s projections call for spending to increase by 1.5 per cent overall in the coming three years.
“This is a balanced budget in every sense of the word,” Kelowna-Lake Country MLA Norm Letnick. “It builds on previous budgets to get us to this point.”
B.C. has had four deficit budgets in a row leading up to this one and is only the second province in Canada (after Saskatchewan) to bring in a balanced budget this year.
Letnick, who is also the province’s agriculture minister, saw some increases in its funding for his ministry to tackle issues like the replacement of the Canadian Federal Inspection Agency when it comes to inspecting private abattoirs, as well as more money for the Agricultural Land Commission.
He said he was particularly pleased to see changes to the carbon tax to help greenhouse operators in B.C. and farmers that use “purple” gasoline in their machinery.
The government also plans to spend $1 million to add milk to the school fruit and vegetable nutrition program, said Letnick.
The local MLA, who says he will run for re-election in the upcoming provincial vote in May, said he will be happy to take this budget to the electorate.
Another area where the province plans to spend more is on health care. But the planned spending increases of 2.3 per cent, 2.7 per cent and 2.2 per cent over the next three years was not enough to satisfy the B.C. Nurse’s Union.
“This is not enough even to maintain existing health care services, given the cost of population growth and inflation, not to mention what’s needed to make needed improvements,” said Debra McPherson, president of the BCNU. “As a result, health authorities will be forced to continue jamming hospital patients into offices, lounges and other areas not designed for patient care, as well as using hallways to take up the slack.”
De Jong argued that the government has already established a track record of containing the rise of health care funding in recent years. His budget also adds a four per cent increase in Medical Services Plan premiums to take effect next January, the latest in a series of increases paid by individuals or their employers for basic medical care.
Other measures include a temporary, two-year tax hike for the estimated 60,000 British Columbians more earn more than $150,000 per year. Starting in 2014, their personal income tax rate will jump 2.1 per cent to 16.8 per cent. Despite this, de Jong said B.C. continues to have the lowest provincial personal income taxes in Canada for those making less than $122,000 per year.
The government is also increasing its spending on children.
A new children’s education fund set up by the B.C. government in 2007 is being distributed to parents, with a suggestion that they add to the fund for their kids’ education.
De Jong announced in Tuesday’s budget that payouts of $1,200 will be made from the fund for each child as they turn six-years-old. To qualify, registered parents have to open a Registered Education Savings Plan and apply for the grant before their child turns seven.
Eligible children are those born on or after Jan. 1, 2007, resident in B.C. with an RESP account set up by Feb. 28, 2014.
De Jong noted that an RESP is applicable to vocational, trade and college programs, as well as university.
The budget also provides $32 million over three years for new childcare spaces, and a new early childhood tax benefit for families with young children, to take effect in April 2015.
It would provide up to $55 per month for children up to age six, administered through the Canada Child Tax Benefit system.
But while the budget is being branded by the Liberals as family-friendly, business organizations are concerned about a one per cent increase in corporate income tax, on top of the carbon tax on fossil fuels and the end of the harmonized sales tax that provided input tax credits.
Rick Jeffery, president of the Coastal Forest Products Association, said the return of the provincial sales tax amounts to a $140 million tax increase to his members. The forest industry understands the financial pressure and the revolt against the HST, but now needs regulatory reform and skills training from the government to keep it competitive, he said.
The Canadian Restaurant and Food Services Association applauded the end to the HST, projecting a year of growth for B.C.’s 12,000 restaurants once the sales tax on prepared foods drops by seven per cent on April 1.
Finance officials say 16 Crown properties to be marketed this year are expected to produce a net return of $260 million. They include a seven-acre site originally purchased for a new Okanagan jail at the northern end of Kelowna, near Winfield, a former hospital site and two vacant lots in Surrey, a vacant lot near Victoria General Hospital and the former location of North Saanich Middle School on Vancouver Island.
News of the pending sale of surplus government property prompted outrage by two Okanagan NDP candidates late last week.
One of the candidates, Westside-Kelowna’s Carole Gordon, called the moves short-sighted and showed the government was desperate to balance its budget by holding a “fire-sale” of provincially-owned property.
The government says it expects to finish the current fiscal year with a deficit of $1.2 billion, the fourth straight deficit since the global economic meltdown that unfolded before the 2009 election and in 2013-14 will produce a surplus of $197 million.
With files from Tom Fletcher, Black Press Victoria bureau chief.