The taps have been turned on.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced Tuesday nearly $3 billion over the next three years in social spending, with significant investments for children and families, housing affordability and K-12 education.
"We are trying to ensure that we are providing the funding and support necessary to families, to government services, particularly to where the need is greatest and there has been some pressure," said de Jong on Tuesday.
"We are trying to marshal our fiscal strength."
- Health premiums cut in half in pre-election B.C. budget
- 10 things you need to know about B.C. Budget 2017
It's part of a significant increase in overall spending from the government over the last two years, including $902 million in higher statutory spending in the last quarterly update for 2016/2017.
All told, expenses were $44.4 billion in 2014/2015 and are expected to be $50.2 billion for 2017/2018.
The main investments, many of which had previously been announced, include:
- $740 million over three years to the Ministry of Education, much of which will cover an agreement with the B.C. Teachers' Federation following its Supreme Court of Canada victory on class size and composition
- $920 million to build over 5,200 affordable and supportive housing units throughout the province
- $287 million over three years to the Ministry of Children and Family Development, including $120 million to begin addressing recommendations from the Grand Chief Ed John Report on Indigenous Child Welfare
- $199 million to increase disability assistance payments by $50 a month
But De Jong said the increases were only possible because of British Columbia's continued economic strength: the province has had the highest increase in Canada in real GDP growth for two straight years, the first time that has happened in decades.
"We can do something that no other jurisdiction in Canada can do. We can increase spending in areas where it is appropriate to do that, and we can do that without a deficit," said De Jong.
"That is the result of some discipline … if anyone thinks were going to apologize for that, we're not."
One area of social assistance that didn't see increases was welfare: monthly payments remain capped at $610 a month.
"We are anxious to ensure you have the best possible opportunity to return to what you want to do, which is return to the workforce," said de Jong of welfare recipients.
BCTF deal not yet finalized
The Ministry of Education will see its budget rise by $306 million in the next fiscal year (from $5.6 to $5.9 billion), the highest year-over-year increase in its history.
Some of that comes from previous announcements — an additional $50 million for teachers and $29 million for school supplies — but the bulk of it comes from an anticipated agreement with the BCTF on class size and composition, following the BCTF's victory in the Supreme Court of Canada late last year.
"There are talks underway now, and they're complicated talks," said de Jong.
"The parties are moving in the right direction. What I didn't want to do is jeopardize the prospects for success by unilaterally declaring 'I think the settlement will be x amount.'"
BCTF President Glen Hansman agreed that the two sides were close, but said an agreement needed to be in place by mid-March so that school districts could properly budget for next year.
"Some of the money is only there because the court has ordered it … the guarantees need to be restored, and the money to go along with that," he added.
He also expressed concern that there wasn't enough increases to cover the changes in curriculum underway.
"We're changing all the curriculum, in all the classes, in all the grade levels. We need a multi-year commitment."