MLA and Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation Michelle Stilwell said there is a lot in Tuesday’s B.C. budget for people in her Parksville Qualicum Beach riding.
With a $264 million operating surplus, she highlighted the expansion of a $1,200 one-time registered education savings plan (RESP) grant by a year, to children born in 2006, which she said, “will help more than 40,000 children, including some in our community.”
“And when I look at seniors and the ability to have the MSP (medical) premiums support them so they can save up to $480 per year, that will be a good thing for seniors in our community.”
She said this budget includes $70 million a year for MSP relief “to help lower income families and seniors and those individuals who require a little bit of extra assistance.” She gave the example of reductions for a senior making less than $45,000 a year or a senior couple earning less than $51,000.
“Locally I would also say the property transfer tax and the changes we’ll see there will certainly help some of the families in our community and will also perhaps help our community in new building, which creates jobs as well,” she said, explaining that people building new homes priced up to $750,000 “will be fully exempt from the property transfer tax.”
Stilwell touted “record levels of investment in our classrooms” and a $146 million increase in her ministry’s budget to $2.7 billion, including a “modest increase” in rates for transportation for about 40,000 of their clients with disabilities. And she said there are several positive things in this budget related to housing, including the announcement a few days earlier by Minister of Energy and Mines, Responsible for Housing, Rich Coleman, of an “investment of $350 million over the next five years for affordable housing and subsidized housing in the province, one of the biggest in British Columbia we have seen.”
She said this will provide around 2,000 housing units and although it’s too early to know, she hopes some of those units will be here.
“I’ve been working with groups right now that are in the process of developing their plans for affordable housing. I just was approached by another group last week, so I hope that they can get their plans in place in time to benefit from those funds,” she said.
Before the budget details were out, Violet Hayes, co-chair of the Oceanside Task Force on Homelessness, said that while they have successfully housed 20 people in the region, they still don’t get any regular government funding and are constantly scrambling for “piecemeal grants,” so she’d love to see an announcement of stable funding.
Thom Armstrong, executive director of the Co-operative Housing Federation of B.C. said in a news release after the budget was released, that while 2,000 new homes is welcome news, it is pointless unless they also invest in the nearly 4,000 low-income co-op housing units in the province that are on the verge of being lost as federal grants expire.
Local opposition MLA Scott Fraser said he wasn’t impressed with things in the budget like the MSP reductions. He said most people will see MSP increases of $240 a year and focused on that as symbolic of what he called a huge and growing gap between the rich and middle class, with one-in-five children living in poverty and 100,000 people using food banks every month.
“Since 2011 there’s been a 24 per cent increase on MSPs — that’s $345 per family,” he said, adding there have been average increases of $180 for ICBC customers and $345 for BC Hydro.
“So we’re pushing $1,000 more just on those three. From what I’m hearing from everybody, that’s causing huge problems. Seniors, not exclusively, but I’ve certainly heard from seniors that are deciding whether to turn the heat on or eat.”
He said this was also symbolized by the announcement of a $100 million inaugural commitment to the liquid natural gas (LNG) prosperity fund.
“The prosperity fund was originally tied to the production and the benefits that LNG will bring to the province,” Stilwell said, but touted the province’s contribution before there is an LNG industry as a way “to help eliminate the province’s debt over time, to be able to invest in other priorities like health care, education, transportation, those things, we can really preserve and share the prosperity that we’re seeing today for the future generations tomorrow.”
“They’re going to create their LNG fund without an LNG project, because it was an election promise,” Fraser said, calling it “a fantasy fund that has nothing to do with LNG.”
He pointed to the $100 million contribution being similar to the additional money that will be brought in by MSP increases, which the Canadian Taxpayer’ Federation called $124 million.
“So in other words, they don’t have any LNG money so they’re taking $100 million and just adding that to taxation or MSP premiums. They’re taking money that could better go for relief on people that are getting hit with all of these fee increases and creating a new fund to use as they want.”
Fraser also balked at the affordable housing investment calling it “throwing money at a symptom, rather than at the problem,” which he said requires a “poverty reduction strategy, like every other province has.”
“There are all kinds of factors involved in poverty and homelessness including nickel and diming people to death on fees that they don’t acknowledge as taxes.”
“In the last budget, Christy Clark gave the top two per cent of income earners in B.C. a $230 million tax break, to the wealthiest people in the province, and jacked up all these fees for everybody else.”
“In a four-year period, that’s a billion-dollar tax break to the richest in the province while they’re throwing dribs and drabs at the rest of the province for problems that are being created. More and more people are falling below middle class status.”
He explained the difference between “progressive” tax, like income tax based on how much you make, versus “regressive” tax, like flat fees.
“On Hydro, for example, which is going up so quickly because of government mismanagement, you will pay the same as the richest person in the province.”
He summed up that the government is failing at its job to “ensure that the most people in the province benefit from the wealth of the province, from our resources, and they’re taking us in the absolute wrong direction.”
Stilwell summed the budget up differently, calling it a sign of her government’s “steady and stable economy moving forward. We’re really leaders in growing the economy and the envy of much of the country.”