3 things to watch for on B.C. budget day to determine if John Horgan is truly the people's premier

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      Often, politicians will be elected to power by promising to do things differently and by reflecting the views of the have-nots.

      We saw that with Barack Obama, Justin Trudeau, Donald Trump, and even, to a certain extent, Christy Clark here in B.C.

      But once they take the reins of control, they tend to govern for the powerful.

      This is especially tricky for NDP politicians because their base expects some fiery challenges against wealth and privilege.

      To date, B.C.'s John Horgan has had mixed results navigating the difficult path between being a people's premier and the ultimate insider.

      He got off to a good start by making some simple moves to make life more affordable. Medical premiums were cut and road tolls were eliminated (even if those road tolls were actually defensible and should have been expanded).

      In last year's budget, his finance minister imposed new housing taxes, which were enormously popular with the NDP base even as they enraged the real-estate sector.

      Two months ago, Horgan and his agriculture minister, Lana Popham, announced that fish farms were being phased out of the Broughton Archipelago.

      Plus, there's been a dramatic increase in temporary modular housing units in Vancouver, which is offering tremendous benefits to the homeless.

      But more recently, Horgan has also been evolving into the voice of the establishment, which is perilous territory for any NDP leader.

      That's demonstrated by his cabinet's decision to complete the $10.7-billion Site C dam, offer a tax holiday to Royal Dutch Shell and its partners on a massive LNG plant, and refusing to order a public inquiry into money laundering, notwithstanding massive support for this among the NDP base.

      Today is budget day. It's another test for the NDP government to determine if it's truly on the side of the people or if it's just another conventional Third Way progressive party eager to align itself with the establishment.

      Here are three things to watch for in the budget to determine whether Horgan and his finance minister, Carole James, are prepared to recalibrate their message to appeal more to the province's have-nots.

      Finance Minister Carole James says this year's provincial budget is going to be balanced.

      1. Surtax on high-income earners

      This is red meat to the left, as demonstrated by the reaction to New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's call for a top marginal tax rate of 70 percent to help finance a "Green New Deal".

      In B.C., the top marginal tax rate is 16.8 percent on income in excess of $153,900. It's 14.7 percent for income above $113,506.01 up to $153,900.

      Keep in mind that people pay a lower rate on everything they earn below $113,506, even if their salary exceeds this.

      The federal tax rate for the highest income earners (above $210,371) is 33 percent. This means that people who are collecting more than $210,371 pay a marginal tax rate of 49.8 percent in both provincial and federal levies.

      That's only on their taxable income above the threshold.

      There's a 29 percent federal marginal tax rate on income from $147,667 to $210,371. 

      An old-time B.C. New Democrat like the party's first premier, Dave Barrett, would have probably seized the opportunity to jack up taxes on the rich. Horgan and James, however, might prove to be more cautious.

      2. Interest-free B.C. student loans

      Students and other young people paying off student loans are a key part of the NDP base, particularly in constituencies with large postsecondary institutions, such as Vancouver–Point Grey and Burnaby North.

      The NDP made a big issue in the last election campaign about bringing forward interest-free student loans. If it finally gets around to doing this, it's likely to be supported by Andrew Weaver of the B.C. Greens, whose Oak Bay–Gordon Head constituency includes the University of Victoria.

      3. A poverty-reduction plan with teeth

      After 16 years of B.C. Liberal rule, many in the middle class became inured to the suffering of the province's poorest residents. But as author Andrew MacLeod pointed out in his award-winning book A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia, provincial policies have been punishing the poor for a very long time.

      The root of the problem is the abysmally low social-assistance rates that make no accommodation for sharply rising housing costs and lack of rental accommodation in B.C.'s major centres.

      MacLeod's book also detailed how B.C.'s inequality has exceeded all other provinces. The debt-to-income ratio, debt-service costs, low savings rates, and sensitivity to rising interest rates are also off the charts in our province.

      Does the NDP government have the guts to put $100 million on the table—or more—to address this provincial disgrace? We'll find out later today.