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Column: B.C. budget must be viewed through political spectrum

Columnist and retired Times editor, Frank Bucholtz, weighs in on Tuesday's budget and what it will mean for Langley residents
Finance Minister Mike de Jong cites B.C.'s diversified trade as a reason for its strong economic performance, in a budget presentation that promises new spending and fee reductions.

The coming election (or “shareholders’ meeting,” as Finance Minister Mike de Jong called it in Tuesday’s budget speech), is virtually the only factor driving provincial politics these days.

After all, it is just over two months away — on Tuesday, May 9. The current session of the provincial legislature simply helps set the table for it, and the budget is by far the largest item on the table.

Thus the budget must be looked at through a political prism.

That’s why the biggest item in it was a significant cut in Medical Services Plan premiums.

The premiums have been rising at a spectacular rate over the past five years, and have become a lightning rod for criticism of the government.

Back in 2011, when Christy Clark became premier, a family of three paid $121 per month in MSP premiums, while a couple paid $109.

This year, a couple or family of three or more pay $150 per month – $1,800 per year. Because many employers pay half of that cost and MSP premiums are deducted from paycheques, many people haven’t really noticed the steep increases.

Employers certainly have though, and so have the increasing number of self-employed people who pay 100 per cent of their premiums.

The premiums have become a regular talking point for Jordan Bateman, the former Langley Township councillor who is B.C. head of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.

Many other commentators have also taken aim, noting that B.C. is the only province where people pay such premiums, and also point out that premiums are not adjusted to income levels.

Even though the government has raised the threshold for premium assistance, many people with average incomes pay large amounts in premiums, which are nothing but an additional tax.

A cut to MSP premiums, coupled with a .5 per cent cut in the small business tax rate and removal of the PST from BC Hydro bills to businesses, has business leaders smiling.

This is an immediate boost to their bottom line and will lead to rising business confidence and likely a spate of hiring. Given that business conditions in B.C, particularly on the Lower Mainland, remain quite good, this is good news for the economy.

However, there are many challenges facing B.C. residents.

While the economy is strong in the Lower Mainland, housing prices are sky-high and child care is hard to come by.

While the budget announced $20 million for up to 2,000 additional child care spaces, that doesn’t even match the birth rate, child care advocate Sharon Gregson noted.

Cash flow is tough for many people.

Obtaining housing, even as a tenant, is getting more difficult.

The budget does provide cash for the already-announced program to assist first-time home buyers, but many people will find it hard to qualify for that generous program.

These conditions provide an opening for the NDP, who will unveil their plans for provincial spending within a few weeks. NDP leader John Horgan said Tuesday that the party has been waiting to see the government reveal the state of the province’s finances, so it can present its own plans based on that financial picture.

Given that Horgan has already said that the NDP would eliminate MSP premiums and make child care available at $10 per day, there will be limited flexibility in any NDP plan. Both those pledges will consume a huge amount of money.

The NDP also must boost education spending (as the BC Liberals have done in their budget) due to a Supreme Court of Canada ruling, and will have no choice but to go along with the government’s nine per cent boost to the ministry of children and family development’s budget.

The NDP will have few other big ticket items they can dangle before the public – unless the party is willing to go into a significant deficit position.

That is always a hard sell for B.C. voters.

Voters in the four ridings that now split Langley between them will use these  competing visions of how to spend their tax dollars to help them make their choice for MLA on May 9.

The budget, the parties’ visions for B.C.’s economic future and the record of the BC Liberals, in power for 16 years, will be the factors that the “shareholders” weigh.

Frank Bucholtz is a retired editor-turned political blogger. His thoughts on issues affecting the South Fraser region can be found on his Frankly Speaking blog.