Finance minister Katrine Conroy laid out the provincial government’s fiscal budget today, the first under Premier David Eby.
“Some believe we should respond to uncertainty by pulling back, by making cuts that reduce services, or by making people pay out of pocket for tolls and private health care. That’s not what British Columbians want, and that’s not our government’s approach,” she said in a speech to the legislature.
BC came into this year with a considerable budget surplus of $3.59 billion. The budget forecasts running a deficit for the next few years: $4.2 billion this year, $3.75 billion in 2024-5, and $3 billion in 2025-6—a sign of big investments into key services across the province.
“We can’t go back to short-sighted thinking. The kind of thinking that cuts services today, while leaving actual costs for tomorrow. It didn’t work before, and it certainly won’t work now,” she said.
Here’s a look at some of the key measures in health, housing affordability, and climate. It’s far from everything, but it gives a sense of what some of the big-ticket priorities are. While there are positive investments and plenty of small tax credits or benefit bumps, there’s not a lot to really tackle systemic issues of affordability, equality, or out-of-control housing costs in the Lower Mainland.
The government has promised an additional $6.4 billion over the next three years to the healthcare system, which includes $270 million for cancer care, $1 billion for more retention and recruitment, $1.1 billion to attract and keep primary care physicians, and $875 million for ongoing COVID-19 response measures. The COVID-19 fund is for this year alone, and will not be carried into future budgets.
$867 million has been budgeted for “mental health, addictions and treatment services … for people struggling with substance use disorder.” Most of this, $586 million, will go towards more treatment and recovery beds, wraparound services for youth, and Indigenous treatment centres. $184 million more over three years has been budgeted to support “safer substance use,” including the continuation of providing prescription diacetylmorphine. But user fees will remain for treatment beds: only new facilities will have free treatment.
However, the budget does not discuss expanding safer supply to actually undercut the current unregulated market of toxic drugs—something advocates say is necessary to stop six people per day dying from poisoned substances. There is also no dedicated line item about increases the number of overdose prevention sites or supervised consumption sites, despite their relative scarcity outside of major urban areas.
“Standards need to be in place to ensure an evidence-based approach to treatment,” said a statement from the BC Health Coalition. “These standards should recognize the need to provide multiple medical treatment options, such as safe supply, as well as ensure treatment is consensual. [We are] strongly against a treatment approach that sees public money for treatment land in for-profit hands where standards around staffing or treatment approaches may not be regulated or evidence-based.”
Contraception will also now be free in BC: $119 million over three years will fully cover prescription contraceptives including pills, injections, intrauterine devices, implants, and the morning after pill. Dr Ruth Habte, an organizer with AccessBC, said in a press release that the budget announcement “is a victory for gender equality and reproductive justice in BC, especially for patients struggling to access the contraceptive of their choice.”
$11.2 billion over three years is also earmarked for capital spending on new healthcare infrastructure. That includes St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, the new hospital and cancer centre in Surrey, and expansions and redevelopments of other hospitals across the province. The province claims this is the largest-ever capital investment in health infrastructure.
Housing and affordability
Income and disability assistance shelter rates will be increased by 33 per cent. That’s an increase of $125, to $500 per month for a single person. But the increase is to shelter rates specifically, meaning more money will be paid to landlords of people living in social housing. The end result is still pretty meagre, leaving people on income assistance or disability pay well below the poverty line and unable to afford market rate rentals.
The BC Family Benefit is also set to see a 10 per cent increase in monthly payments starting in July 2023, with an increase of $250 per year for a family with two children. Single parents will see an additional $500 per year. And $2 billion over three years is going into expanding the Climate Action Tax Credit from July 2023 onwards, increasing from $193.50 to $447 per year for an adult, from $193.50 to $223.50 for a spouse, and from $56.50 to $111.50 per child.
The long-promised $400 renters’ rebate, first promised in 2017, was also fleshed out. It will be a $400 tax credit for renter households who earn less than $60,000 per year. Households earning up to $80,000 will be eligible for a portion.
The promised amount has not increased with inflation; the 18.84 per cent inflation over six years means a $400 rebate in 2017 would be equivalent to $475 today. It also does not take into account that rents have increased by hundreds of dollars per month in the intervening six years. And while 80 per cent of renters will be eligible for the tax credit, 92 per cent of homeowners are eligible for the home owner grant that costs the province nearly $1 billion per year.
So ~92% of BC homeowners get the home owner grant— Shannon Waters (@sobittersosweet) February 28, 2023
While ~80% of BC renters will get some amount of tax credit
Price tag for the HOG in 2023-24: $910M
Price tag for the renter tax credit: $307M
Housing is seeing $4.2 billion in operating and capital funding over the next three years, aimed at homes for renters, Indigenous people and middle-income families. There’s $640 million over that time frame for supportive housing for unhoused people; $575 million specifically for new student housing; $394 million for transit-oriented development; $266 million for complex care housing for people with overlapping mental health and substance use issues; and $230 million over 10 years to help BC Housing protect its rental stock. There’s also an incentive for developers to build purpose-built rentals and a separate pilot project for homeowners to develop secondary long-term rental suites, with more information set to come out about all housing initiatives in a housing strategy that will be out later this spring.
Vacancy control, which housing advocates have touted as an important way to prevent rents increasing as units change between tenants, was not announced as a line item policy in the budget.
Climate inaction is costly. There’s $1.1 billion over three years dedicated to fighting climate change, including $300 million to refurbish or replace infrastructure damaged by climate emergencies on top of $750 million previously announced as going to affected communities. (A report from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives last year found that climate disasters in 2021 alone cost at least $10.6 billion.)
The budget also includes some more funding for clean energy, fueling hopes for a just green transition. There’s $480 million over three years to the Future Ready Plan to ensure people can access skills and training to be ready for “the jobs of tomorrow,” including more training and workforce participation initiatives.
$100 million is going into transportation networks to promote walking, cycling and transit, while $40 million will go towards subsidizing non-profits and businesses switching to electric vehicles. Additionally, carbon tax increase rates are coming—and will help fund increased tax credits for lower and middle-income people and families.
There’s $21 million over three years going towards creating eight more Forest Landscape Planning tables (up from the existing four), to defer logging old growth forests. And there’s $100 million for the Watershed Security Fund for biodiversity and clear water programs, but without clear targets attached.
There isn’t other funding listed to help the province meet the goals in its Old-Growth Strategic Review or the commitment to protect 30 per cent of the province’s land and water by 2030. Some advocates say the budget doesn’t do enough to actually make sure these targets are met.
“If Premier David Eby and the BC NDP are serious about keeping their promises to safeguard at-risk old-growth forests and double the amount of protected areas in the province in the next seven years, they need to spend money to make it happen,” Torrance Coste, national campaign director of Wilderness Committee, said in a statement.