B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong begins a sales job today, pitching voters on a budget that contains few goodies to sway undecideds and some mine fields sure to irk its staunchest supporters.
The B.C. government's pre-election budget will raise income taxes on the wealthy and on corporations and will hike Medical Service Plan premiums for everyone.
Doctors have been put on notice to expect their fees for some services to be cut and eliminated for others.
Still, de Jong and the Liberals are banking the tough measures needed to deliver their promise of balancing the books before the May vote will re-establish the party's budgeting credentials and prompt voters to choose them for a fourth term.
De Jong says tough decisions shouldn't be put off for tomorrow, because, for politicians, tomorrow often doesn't come.
However, the fiscal plan represents a major shift for the party that has stood by its principle of not raising taxes for nearly 12 years, during which time the Liberals have tabled deficit budgets and cut spending to avoid hiking person or corporate taxes.
B.C. Conservative Party Leader John Cummins says the budget may as well have been tabled by the NDP.
"When you look at the business tax increases, when you look at some of these spending cuts that we're seeing, you can say this would be you know sort of a soft NDP budget."
But de Jong scoffs at that suggestion.
"It's an interesting comment … because it's balanced and balanced budgets are not something the NDP are particularly familiar with," he said. "It's interesting because it's tough to compare because so far Mr. Dix and the NDP refuse to share their plans."
'Very clear choices'
Opposition finance critic Bruce Ralston says he's pleased the government has headed in the NDP direction.
He supports the tax increases on high income earners and corporations announced in the budget, but admits it leaves little room for an NDP government to use the tax increases to fund new programs now that they're Liberal policies.
"I'm pleased the B.C. Liberals, despite their strong attacks on those ideas, have adopted them, but it does certainly change the revenue picture as we go forward."
But Ralston says the pre-election budget isn’t really balanced, saying the Liberal government won’t likely be able to sell off close to half a $500,000 million in real estate over the next two fiscal years.
And on the spending side, he said the Liberals' priorities don't add up.
"You have to look at the question of some of the choices that the government has made," he said.
"They claim that spending $11million on a Bollywood concert is a strategic marketing exercise, where the Ministry for Children and Families has an actual increase of $11million in the same time period, so those are very clear choices."
Ralston says the NDP will spell out its budget choices when it presents its election platform in the coming weeks.
Critics say education, vulnerable children left out of budget
Meanwhile, educators are giving the provincial government a failing grade.
The province has cut funding for advanced education by about $4 million.
"Although the minister said higher education spending is at an all-time high in B.C. … student enrollment is also at an all-time high and it’s growing faster than the money is growing which is why, on a per student basis, we’re down 20 per cent by the end of this budget plan," said Robert Clift, the executive director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of B.C.
K-12 funding has remained flat.
The B.C. Teachers’ Federation says per-student funding in the province is now below every other province in the country except PEI.
Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth, is also critical of the budget.
She says it offers nothing to vulnerable children and families, calling the government's budget increase for daycare "a pittance" and its plan to improve education with fewer resources "laughable."
"For the children and families that we know already have deep needs, there's actually really nothing there," she said.
"So when we look at issues like child and youth mental health … there's no relief. There's no relief on the type of homes we're putting in children in care. No therapeutic residential services money. It's not a friendly budget for vulnerable persons and those in demand-driven services, like the Ministry for Children and Families."
Turpel-Lafond says it's hard to believe the government's claim that it puts family first when looking at the budget.
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