Finance Minister Carole James delivers her first budget in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 20, 2018. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press/pool)

Finance Minister Carole James delivers her first budget in the B.C. legislature, Feb. 20, 2018. (Chad Hipolito/The Canadian Press/pool)

B.C. VIEWS: Our not-so-New Democrats don’t rock the boat

Finance Minister Carole James takes the wheel, steers similar course

My first question was answered quickly when reporters and “stakeholders” were sworn to secrecy, ushered into the Victoria Conference Centre main hall and handed a stack of papers revealing the B.C. NDP’s first budget in 17 years.

Would they balance the budget, or dip into the red to finance their plan to sweep away everything from bridge tolls to medical premiums to daycare waiting lists? Premier John Horgan promised before the 2017 election to keep the books in surplus, and last week Finance Minister Carole James delivered a three-year forecast with more than $200 million left over in each year.

The sales pitch on the budget was “bold” and “historic,” a dramatic departure from 16 years of cold, uncaring leadership that turned over the strongest provincial economy in the country to the new NDP-Green minority government. A closer look reveals mainly tweaks to the status quo.

The NDP had already delivered on one expensive promise, matching the B.C. Liberal pledge to cut Medical Services Plan premiums by half on Jan. 1. Canada’s last direct health care fee collected $2.6 billion at its peak a year ago, and James made her biggest course correction to replace some of that revenue.

A new employers’ health care tax takes effect next year for employers with payrolls of more than $500,000. Larger businesses that currently pay their employees’ MSP will have to pay the new payroll tax and the MSP for a year. The B.C. government and local governments, being large employers, will pay the new tax too, so this will trickle down to you one way or another.

The foreign buyer tax on urban real estate jumps from 15 to 20 per cent. This is a tweak of the B.C. Liberal measure introduced in the summer of 2016 that caused a brief flattening of the roaring Metro Vancouver real estate market before home prices began rising again.

The tax is being extended to the Fraser Valley, Central Okanagan, Greater Victoria and Nanaimo regions. It sounds bold, but foreign property purchases outside Metro Vancouver are relatively rare.

Horgan has been softening us up for months about the supposed NDP revolution in child care. That $10-a-day promise was just a slogan created by daycare advocates, borrowed by him for the election. Now it’s a 10-year plan that will eventually mean free daycare for low-income families, if you re-elect an NDP government twice.

Starting this September, parents will receive a new child care benefit of “up to $1,250” for each child under age three, if their family income is less than $111,000. Parents of older children get nothing until 2020.

This is an extension of the existing child benefit program for lower-income families. The NDP government is also adding to the existing subsidy program for child-care providers, and expanding on the last B.C. Liberal plan to fund 1,800 more spaces in 30 B.C. communities.

The pre-election promise to conjure up 114,000 housing units is another 10-year vision. James tossed out big numbers, like 14,000 new rental units for middle-income people. This mostly reinforces a widely held urban myth that the government builds housing, and that drug users wander the streets due to a shortage of apartments.

In fact the construction industry is flat out in urban areas, building rental housing among other things. It’s called a market economy, and demand for rental housing is high and rising.

A more practical NDP move is the increase to the Shelter Aid For Elderly Renters (SAFER) program, which will provide an extra $930 per year to 35,000 low-income households.

Tom Fletcher is B.C. legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Email: tfletcher@blackpress.ca


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