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Category "B.C. Budget 2019"

20Feb

B.C. poverty reduction plan a mix of new and old programs, says minister

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Minister of Social Development Shane Simpson says a new poverty reduction plan, coming within two weeks, will be a mixture of new programs and items government has already announced.


CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS

VICTORIA — B.C.’s new poverty reduction plan will include a mixture of fresh government programs as well as services that have already been announced, says the social development minister.

Shane Simpson said Wednesday that while no specific money was highlighted in Tuesday’s budget for poverty reduction, there are nonetheless several programs already in place and funded by other ministries that will count toward the plan when it is released in “a couple of weeks.”

The poverty reduction plan calls for a 25 per cent reduction in poverty, and a 50 per cent reduction in child poverty, within five years.

“There are a whole array of issues that will play into achieving those objectives,” said Simpson. “It’s child care, it’s minimum wage, it’s housing, it’s pieces that have gone before, it’s pieces that will come afterwards, it’s pieces that we’re not even sure of where they land like the basic income initiative that we’ll see in 2020.”

Tuesday’s budget did announce a $380-million annual new B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit program to give families up to $1,600 a year in financial support for a child — though the benefit doesn’t begin until October 2020. The budget added only $9 million for child care, though that was on top of $1 billion over three years announced last year that funds a mixture of subsidies (including virtually free care for a family with an income under $45,000) and 53 pilot sites for $10-a-day child care.

Simpson said it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on his plan because spending for the child benefit and child care programs are budgeted elsewhere. But he said the plan will incorporate the $100 in increases to the disability and social assistance rates dating back to 2017, as well as the $50 additional rate increase announced in Tuesday’s budget.

Social advocacy groups criticized the government for not providing more assistance for the poor in the budget, including the deeply poor. Simpson said he appreciated the work of the advocacy groups and “I’m looking forward to working with these groups and for them to continue to push us. That’s healthy.”

The poverty plan will also include new funding for rent banks, which Finance Minister Carole James has said will help prevent people from being evicted if they run into financial trouble due to illness, their job or life events. James’s ministry said Wednesday the government will be providing money to existing rent backs in communities across B.C. rather than creating and operating its own.

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20Feb

B.C. Budget 2019: Discounted transit fares, HandyDART funding absent

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Two initiatives that could make transit Metro Vancouver more accessible and affordable were missing from Tuesday’s provincial budget.

The region’s mayors have been advocating for funding for HandyDART, the door-to-door shared-ride service for people with disabilities, and a break on transit fares for people with low incomes and youths.

“We would have liked to have seen those programs included in this year’s budget,” said New Westminster Mayor Jonathan Coté, who chairs the Mayors’ Council on Regional Transportation.

For the past couple of years, both the council and TransLink, the regional transportation authority, have argued that the provincial government should help pay for HandyDART.

TransLink has invested money in expanding HandyDART service as part of its 10-year regional transportation plan, and made some changes following a review to improve the quality of service.

However, Coté said the majority of HandyDART trips are related to health services, such as dialysis or specialist appointments, and seeing some investment from the Ministry of Health would make sense.


Viveca Ellis, a leadership development coordinator of the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition and All On Board campaign coordinator, wants free transit for youth and reduced fares for others.

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“We think there is an argument to be made that there should be better support through the provincial government, just like the provincial government mainly funds those services throughout other parts of the province,” he said.

“That’s been a longstanding issue that the Mayors’ Council and TransLink have advocated for better support there.”

The budget did include some extra money for transit — and HandyDART — improvements, but for communities outside Metro Vancouver. It adds $21 million over three years for B.C. Transit to expand bus services in 30 urban and rural communities and make improvements to help seniors and people with disabilities.


LISTEN: This week on the In The House podcast, Mike Smyth and Rob Shaw discuss the 2019 BC NDP government budget – was it a prudent NDP spending plan or a missed opportunity to get its agenda done?

We also discuss the CleanBC plan, BC Green leader Andrew Weaver’s budget response and the BC Liberals struggling to define themselves within the budget debate.


A spokesperson for the HandyDART Riders Alliance could not be reached for comment, but on social media shortly after the budget was released on Tuesday, the group called the lack of specific funding for HandyDART “disappointing.”

Coté said he hopes increasing demand for HandyDART service will prompt more serious conversations with the province about a long-term, sustainable funding model so that TransLink can continue to provide the service.

Providing discounted transit passes for people with low incomes and free transit for youths under the age of 18 has been discussed around the Mayors’ Council table, Coté said, and such initiatives have been adopted in other major cities.

“I think the Mayors’ Council is very interested in the idea, but it’s something we strongly feel would be most appropriately funded through a provincial poverty reduction strategy,” Coté said.

Such a strategy was outlined in the budget, but details about the specific programs therein were not released. It’s expected that the public will hear more in the coming weeks.

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Viveca Ellis, campaign organizer for #AllOnBoard, has been lobbying for a regional plan and provincial funding for making transit affordable and accessible for all people in the region.

“In the budget documents and the information that we have right now, we didn’t see anything specifically related to transit affordability and accessibility to transit for low-income people in the TransLink service region or any other region,” Ellis said.

“We’re looking forward to the release of the poverty reduction plan and seeing what will be addressed there in terms of affordable transit.”

Coté said the Mayors’ Council will move forward by formalizing their position on reducing transit fees for low-income earners and youths this spring.

“We do expect continued discussions on that regard there and hopefully future inclusion in budgets in coming years,” he said.

The budget did follow through on promised funding for major transportation infrastructure projects, including the Broadway subway line, for which $1.12 billion has been allocated over the next three years. The total cost of that project is $2.83 billion.

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19Feb

B.C. Budget 2019: Province boosts income, disability assistance rates

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B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition organizer Trish Garner, pictured in 2012, calls the province’s $50 increase to monthly income and disability assistance rates ‘a drop in the ocean’ that still keeps rates ‘shockingly low.’


B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition organizer Trish Garner, pictured in 2012, calls the province’s $50 increase to monthly income and disability assistance rates ‘a drop in the ocean’ that still keeps rates ‘shockingly low.’


Arlen Redekop / PNG files

A boost to assistance rates are among the initiatives in Carole James’s latest budget intended to ease the financial burden faced by hundreds of thousands of B.C. residents who live in poverty.

But the financial measures, which come in advance of an anticipated poverty reduction plan slated for a March release, received muted reaction from some anti-poverty proponents.

In her budget speech, the finance minister said B.C. is thriving, with a balanced budget and a strong credit rating.

“But we will never have a truly prosperous province unless everyone in British Columbia can share in that prosperity,” James said. Often, all it takes to change a person’s life is an opportunity paired with a hand up, she said.

The most obvious hand up for those living in poverty that James’s government included in its latest financial plan is a $50 increase to monthly income and disability assistance rates. The government increased those same rates by $100 two years ago, bringing the total bump in the last three years to $150. Before that, a decade had passed without any increase at all.

Trish Garner, a community organizer with the B.C. Poverty Reduction Coalition, called the $50 increase “a drop in the ocean” that still keeps rates “shockingly low.” She said her organization was looking for an increase of at least $200 this year.

The latest increase places income assistance for a single employable person at $760 per month — less than 50 per cent of the poverty line, Garner said. Those on disability assistance will see their rates rise to $1,183. The increases come with a $44-million price tag over three years, according to the fiscal plan.

Made with Flourish

B.C. is the only province in Canada that does not have a poverty reduction plan, and it also has the highest rate of poverty for children in Canada, according to Shane Simpson, the minister of social development and poverty reduction.

No specific dollar figure for his anticipated poverty plan was included in the budget, but James said the budget did include some initiatives that would form part of the plan. She pointed in particular at a new “child opportunity benefit” that will put as much as $3,400 a year into the hands of parents who are raising children.

Garner said the child benefit gets B.C. caught up to other provinces by extending support for children up to their 18th year and will make “a huge difference.”

Meanwhile, James said more needs to be done to make income and disability assistance more accessible. Included in her budget is $26 million to remove barriers to financial support.

The budget includes $76 million to help put another 200 people in need into modular homes, and organizations that run rent banks will see funding for short-term, low-or-no interest loans to tenants who can’t pay their rent.

The government has said it wants to lift 140,000 people above the poverty line, including half of the 100,000 children who are impoverished, by 2024.

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19Feb

B.C. Budget 2019: Health care spending tops $21 billion a year

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Proposed new St. Paul’s Hospital.


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While health expenditures have risen every year for decades, Finance Minister Carole James said Tuesday the NDP government is determined to make up for “years of cuts” and “underfunding” by the previous Liberal government.

The B.C. Ministry of Health will spend about $21 billion in the 2019/20 fiscal year, $21.5 billion in 2020/21 and $22.1 billion in 2021/22. The 2018/2019 budget was $19.8 billion. Those figures don’t include the $10 million allocated to the Ministry of Mental Health and Additions in each of the next three fiscal periods.

It’s expected that federal transfer payments averaging about $5.5 billion in each of the next three years will help fund the spending which includes billions on new and upgraded hospitals over the next few years, including St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver and Royal Columbian in New Westminster. The government expects to spend $4.4 billion over three years on major hospital construction and upgrades, equipment and health information systems.

St. Paul’s hospital is projected to be completed by 2026 and will ultimately cost $1.9 billion.

Several hospital construction and upgrade projects are behind schedule, according to budget documents. Among them is work at Surrey Memorial Hospital, Royal Inland Hospital in Kamloops and B.C. Children’s and Women’s Hospital.

MENTAL HEALTH

James said the government has allocated $74 million over three years for a better-coordinated child and youth mental health system in which families can “ask once to get help fast.” The new approach will help “ease the worries of countless parents” who don’t know where to turn, she said.

It is described in budget documents as a program to fund prevention and early intervention for children and young adults trying to cope with mental health and addictions problems. Specialized teams of educators, counsellors, mental health experts, substance use experts and others will provide services in one-stop shop facilities, online programs and others.

OVERDOSE CRISIS

James said the government would spend another $30 million on the fentanyl overdose crisis, bringing the total spent since 2017 to $608 million. Across the province, there is a need for more paramedics in rural and remote areas as they have been on the front line of the crisis.

Budget documents say funding is going towards 21 overdose prevention sites and nine supervised consumption sites. Between July 2017 and June 2018, people used drugs 475,000 times at these sites. In that period, 3,000 individuals overdosed at the sites, but all were revived by staff. Another 1,700 drug users were successfully resuscitated around the province over the past year for a total of 4,700 overdose deaths averted.

Still, about 1,500 individuals died from overdoses on streets, residencies or other places across the province in 2018.

PRIMARY CARE STRATEGY

James said the government is “hiring” 200 new family doctors, 200 nurse practitioners and 50 pharmacists, to provide “faster, better” care in “every corner of the province” at urgent care and primary health clinics. Five urgent care clinics have opened so far, including one in downtown Vancouver, and another five will open at undisclosed locations by the summer. James couldn’t say what the budget is for such clinics and staffing and Ministry of Health staff have not provided the figure either.

James seized the opportunity to slam the Liberals for their “doctor for everyone” campaign that flopped because there simply aren’t enough doctors to fulfil such a promise. The NDP scheme to hire 200 new primary care physicians is equally ambitious but James said the Liberal plan to find more family doctors “obviously didn’t work, so we’re taking a team approach.”

She was referring to the government’s oft-touted “primary care strategy” which envisions doctors, nurses and other health care providers working in teams at clinics, all under one roof. It remains more of an aspirational concept, as no specifics emerged Tuesday.

PHARMACARE

Pharmacare deductibles for 240,000 people with incomes under $45,000 have been eliminated, at a cost of $105 million over three years. The government is also spending $42 million to expand coverage for certain drugs so “people can access the medications they need,” including those for three common conditions — diabetes, asthma and hypertension.

The government is fulfilling its promise to eliminate Medical Services Plan premiums formerly charged to individuals and now paid by employers through a health tax. James said the MSP premium cut that began last year will be eliminated by the end of this year. At $2.7 billion, it is “one of the biggest middle-class tax cuts in B.C. history.”

By doing away with premiums, families will save as much as $1,800 a year. But employers are expected to make up the lost revenue through the payroll tax.

OTHER MEASURES

The government also announced an $89-million grant program for life sciences organizations to help them attract and retain researchers “and to support research, entrepreneurship and commercialization” of discoveries. The government expects the provincial share will help attract over $200 million in further funding from other sources.

The B.C. Care Providers Association applauded the $5 million earmarked for training workers, including health care assistants and specialty nurses. CEO Daniel Fontaine said care providers to seniors are especially feeling the effect of staff shortages in the North, the Interior and on Vancouver Island.

“When there are staff shortages, seniors that receive care at home or in a long-term care home or assisted living setting will not receive the services they need,” he said.

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19Feb

What the 2019 B.C. Budget means to you: Six things to know

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Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018.


CHAD HIPOLITO / THE CANADIAN PRESS

The B.C. NDP government’s second budget focused on tax breaks and benefits for people with children, students and businesses, and investments in clean energy and climate initiatives. Here’s a brief summary of how British Columbians will be affected.


CHILD CARE

The budget didn’t make any large strides toward $10-a-day child care beyond continuing funding for the government’s 2018 child care plan into 2021/2022 and increasing it by $9 million a year. The bigger news was the introduction of a B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit to replace the early childhood tax benefit, which currently provides families with up to $660 a year per child under the age of six.

The new benefit, which begins in October 2020, will provide families with one child up to $1,600 a year, with two children up to $2,600 a year and with three children up to $3,400 a year. Instead of ending at six years of age, the benefit will be paid until the child is 18.



Simon Fraser University’s Surrey campus.

Jason Payne /

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EDUCATION

Good news for British Columbians with student loans — no more interest payments. As of Tuesday, all B.C. student loans will stop accumulating interest, saving someone with $11,700 in provincial student loans $2,300 over the 10-year repayment period. This will cost the government $318 million.

The public education system will get a boost, with $2.7 billion set aside over three years to maintain, replace, renovate or expand facilities. There will also be $550 million invested to hire new teachers and special education assistants, and improve classrooms.


RENTAL HOUSING

Community organizations will be provided with funding to operate rent banks to provide short-term loans with little or no interest to low-income tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a financial crisis. It will cost $10 million and be funded through the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction.

The implementation of a B.C.-wide rent bank system for low-income people was one of 23 recommendations delivered late last year from the Rental Housing Task Force struck by the B.C. government.


The Vancouver skyline.

DARRYL DYCK /

THE CANADIAN PRESS


CLIMATE CHANGE

The climate action tax credit will be increased in 2019, 2020 and 2021. Starting July 1, the maximum credit will go up by 14 per cent for adults and children, meaning low- and middle-income families of four will receive up to $400 for this year.

More than $107 million in operating funding will provide incentives for battery-electric and hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles (up to $6,000), incentives for medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, incentives for home charging stations, as well as other programs.


HEALTH CARE

Pharmacare program will be expanded with an additional $42 million to cover more drugs, including those for diabetes, asthma and hypertension. An additional $30 million will be invested in tackling the drug overdose crisis, bringing the total investment since 2017 to $608 million. Mental health programs focused on prevention and early intervention for children, youth and young adults will be funded to the tune of $74 million.

As promised previously, Medical Services Plan premiums will be fully eliminated on Jan. 1, 2020, saving families up to $1,800 per year.



Snow covers Oppenheimer Park as homeless people sleep in tents .

NICK PROCAYLO /

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POVERTY REDUCTION

Income and disability assistance rates will be increased by a $50 a month, a total increase of $150 a month (or $1,800 a year) since the 2017 budget update. Before 2017, the rates had not been increased for a decade. This will cost an extra $44 million over three years.

A homelessness plan will invest $76 million in land acquisition and services to build 200 more modular homes, bringing the total to 2,200 units.

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19Feb

B.C. Budget 2019: Government offers only modest new spending

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VICTORIA — B.C.’s NDP government delivered a stand-pat budget Tuesday that offered little new spending on its priority housing and child care agendas, but did unveil modest funds for student loans and clean energy incentives.

Finance Minister Carole James tabled a $58-billion 2019/20 spending plan for the fiscal year starting April 1, with a $274 million surplus. There are no new tax increases beyond those already announced last year on high income earners, corporations, luxury homes and the carbon tax.

However, there is new small-scale spending, such as $31 million this year to eliminate interest rates on student loans — a move government estimates will save an average undergrad student with $11,200 in loans roughly $2,300 in interest.

“We were very pleased to see that coming in the budget,” said Noah Berson, chairperson of the Alliance of B.C. Students.

It applies to all existing student loans as well, effective immediately.

“The past government racked up surpluses simply for the case of surpluses while not investing in people,” said James. “We are looking for a balanced approach … while also making sure we invest in people who help build that strong economy.”

The budget offered only $9 million in new spending for child care in the coming year, which is on top of $1 billion announced in the last budget spread over three years.

The hold-the-line spending meant the current hybrid system of subsidies and 53 pilot locations for $10-a-day child care won’t be significantly expanded in the coming year, according to ministry officials. Nor was there any signal when full $10-a-day child care — a key NDP election promise from 2017 — may become a reality.

James said there’s still $366 million in child care funding occurring this year from her previous announcements, even if it was not re-announced in this budget.

“Lets remember the child care plan is phased in over time,” she said. “Over the next year you’ll see the minister and ministry doing evaluation of the prototype of $10-a-day and looking at how we expand those.”

Child care advocate Sharon Gregson said she still believes the government is on track by increasing funding incrementally every year despite not making a big deal of re-announcing it. She said she expects the pilot locations and subsidies to increase this year, even if government doesn’t.

“They’ve got room within this funding envelope to do that,” said Gregson. “Now we want to make sure they are spending the money the right way.”

Housing affordability also held to its $7-billion spending plan over 10 years, with a $9 million increase in the budget for “incremental housing initiatives” and more homeless modular housing.

There was no sign of the $400 annual renters rebate promised by the NDP in the 2017 election, which is opposed by the NDP’s power-sharing partners, the B.C. Greens.

“It is something we’re working on with our Green colleagues,” said James. Government is creating a provincially backed rent bank for those who fall behind on their rent and need help to avoid eviction.

James announced a new “Child Opportunity Benefit” as a key new budget promise that would provide up to $1,600 a year for a child, through monthly deposits to families on an income-tested scale.

“We really want to make sure we have the opportunity for every child to thrive and provide more help to families in raising those children,” she said.

“So I’m very proud that budget 2019 introduces the child opportunity benefit. This really is a historic investment, and puts dollars in the pocket of middle class families.”

But the program does not actually start until October 2020 — meaning it is not even part of the coming fiscal year.

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Therefore, there’s no money set aside to fund the program in the coming year, and no cheques in the mail for almost 20 months. James said that’s because it takes a year’s notice for B.C. to get the Canada Revenue Agency to agree to help with the administration of the program.

James reiterated the elimination of Medical Services Plan premiums this year — which are replaced with an Employer Health Tax — combined with future credits like the child benefit could be considered in one of the largest middle-class tax breaks in provincial history.

The government’s ambitious plan to promote clean electricity use to hit its pollution-reduction targets, called CleanBC, received $902 million over three years in the budget.

The money will fund already-existing climate action tax credit cheques, as well extend for a year the current $6,000 point-of-sale rebate on electric vehicles, $2,000 to replace a fossil fuel burning furnace with an electric heat pump and $1,000 to upgrade windows and doors to be better insulated.

Some programs, such as electric vehicles subsidies, have been so popular in the past that they’ve run out of money and had to be topped up by government during the year, said James.

The government had set up expectations of a fully funded poverty reduction plan to be unveiled this year.

However, there was almost no mention of such a plan in the budget.

Instead, the budget outlined a $50 monthly increase to disability and income assistance levels — which advocates have already said are so low they need a major spike in order to provide a livable foundation for the poor.

“We know more needs to be done to make income and disability assistance more accessible,” said James.

“You’ll hear more about this as the poverty plan comes forward in the spring with more specifics.”

That disappointed advocates like the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which said the $50 monthly increase was insufficient.

“I think we could have done more,” said senior economist Iglika Ivanova. “I think we definitely have the fiscal capacity.”

She said she can see the outlines of a poverty reduction plan on the horizon, but that the new child benefit tax program won’t help as much as government claimed.

“No children and families on welfare will be lifted out of poverty by this child benefit,” she said. “It is not big enough.”

Other small-scale new spending initiatives in the budget include $74 million over three years for new mental health and addictions programs for children, and redirecting $297 million in gaming revenue to share with First Nations over three years.

James said there’s flexibility built into the budget for unanticipated spending, both in a $500 million forecast allowance as well as a $750 million contingency fund. There’s also $553 million set aside for bargaining mandates.

James said the provincial economy remains the healthiest in Canada, with forecasts of the Gross Domestic Product increased to 2.4 per cent in part due to the new Canada-United States-Mexico trade agreement.

“It’s a budget strong on the social side and quite weak on the economic development side,” said Jock Finlayson, executive vice-president of the B.C. Business Council. “It’s complacent. It says the relatively strong economy we’ve been operation on will continue. I’m not sure that’s necessarily true.”

Finlayson said James deserves credit for holding back on large spending initiatives and pressure within her party to spend big.

“The fiscal and economic projections I think are credible,” said Finlayson.

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade gave the budget a “B-“ rating, calling it “a steady as we go budget” built on last year’s tax increases.

A cooling housing market is estimated to cut into property transfer tax revenue, lowing it from $2.2 billion to $1.9 billion. B.C. Housing starts are expected to drop almost 33 per cent by 2023, compared to the final year of the previous Liberal government.

However, the government does not necessarily think lower construction and sales will translate into lower prices for housing.

“The average home sale price in B.C. is expected to increase moderately over the forecast horizon,” read the budget.

James said she’s still pleased with what she sees.

“We’re finally starting to see some moderation,” she said of housing. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”

But she said the government wants more “moderation” in prices

“I don’t think we’re at that stage to say housing is affordable particularly in our metro centres,” she said.

Paul Kershaw, of Generation Squeeze, said the housing measures “were resting on last year’s laurels” but the government deserved credit for at least trying to influence the market.

Kershaw said he wished government would act on incentivizing municipalities to approve more density in communities that would allow for more purpose-built rental housing.

The government has already introduced a speculation tax as well as surcharges on homes valued at more than $3 million, as part of a 30-point plan James said needs more time.

The budget predicts a stunning turnaround at the Insurance Corp. of B.C., which Attorney General David Eby has called a “dumpster fire” financially and is on track to lose $1.18 billion this year. ICBC’s finances should reverse to only a $50 million loss in the coming year, after government institutes a new $5,500 cap on pain and suffering claims for minor injuries as well as other legal reforms, according to the budget. By 2020/21 ICBC is predicted to be back in the black.

“All of us and I as finance minister feel some frustration that these change didn’t occur early and we’re faced with this kind of fiscal challenge in our budget,” James said of ICBC.

Health care spending, the single largest item in the annual budget, is budgeted to rise almost $1 billion to $20.8 billion, or roughly 36 per cent of all government spending. Some of that is for expanded cancer services and improved access to drugs, though much appears to be the simple growth in the cost of delivering health care services.

Elementary and secondary school funding is budgeted to grow $197 million. The government says it has hired more than 4,000 teachers and restored $423 million in extra funding annually to the system after the Supreme Court of Canada decision on class size and composition.

An increase in capital spending for transportation, health, schools and other infrastructure will also grow the total provincial debt from $67.9 billion to more than $82 billion in 2021/22, an increase of almost 21 per cent.

Almost four cents of every dollar of revenue is set to be used to pay for interest on debt. James said the debt-to-GDP ratio on taxpayer-supported debt — a key metric credit agencies use when awarding B.C. a AAA credit rating — remains affordable at an estimated 15 per cent.

“British Columbia is thriving,” said James. “We have a balanced budget across the fiscal track. We’re the only province with a AAA credit rating …

but we will never have a truly prosperous province unless everyone in British Columbia can share in that prosperity.”

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