OPINION: BC Budget Critique; How Does BC Compare?

Dermod Travis
By Dermod Travis
February 22nd, 2016

Petty. One word that springs to mind after last week’s B.C. budget.

At best, it’s a lip service budget. Tweak here, tweak there, but devoid of any real purpose.

To be sure, some were tossed a chicken wing.

But you can almost hear the minions in the backroom: “just make sure it doesn’t cost us anything, the rubes will never catch on.”

Make believe money for the most hurting. One minute it’s there, then poof.

After the canned budgetary spin, there’s a host of other insights worth sharing from last week’s fiscal plan.

Since 2010/11 – Premier Christy Clark’s inheritance year – total government revenue is up $7.4 billion or 18.15 per cent, nearly twice the rate of inflation. Average weekly earnings in B.C. are up 11.4 per cent.

In the “other revenue” category – things such as tuition fees and motor vehicle licences – the government has pencilled in $3.4 billion, an increase of $793 million over 2010/11 or $170 more per capita.

Six-years ago, B.C. Hydro coughed up $591 million. In 2016/17, $692 million or $52 more per household.

In 2001, the B.C. Liberal party promised to “stop the expansion of gambling that has increased gambling addiction and put new strains on families.”

That was back when provincial revenue from the B.C. Lottery Corporation was $444 million. This year: $1.2 billion.

In the white elephant department: the Transportation Investment Corporation (TIC) continues to bleed red ink. TIC operates the Port Mann bridge and not particularly well.

Its losses have overshot forecasts by 67 per cent and now total $442 million. They’re estimated at a further $207 million for 2017 and 2018.

All in, that’s enough to buy three fast ferries.

How one government’s boondoggle excuses another government’s boondoggle remains a mystery to this day.

TIC’s debt stands at $3.4 billion, more than the government’s original $3 billion estimate for the entire Gateway plan, which included a $300 million contingency fund.

And the government is at it again.

The opening bid on the proposed Massey Tunnel replacement is $3.5 billion and that’s for a bridge one-kilometer longer than the Port Mann.

They say, practice makes perfect.

Not all departments were left to scrounge petty cash.

In the political spin department, the Communications and Public Engagement Office’s budget is up 43.3 per cent over 2010/11 to $37.9 million.

Perhaps health minister Dr. Terry Lake can explain that one to 82-year-old Francis Flann who had to recover from cancer surgery in a homeless shelter this month.

The office’s overall budget isn’t the only thing that’s gone up in the spin cycle. 

In 2010/11, Gordon Campbell’s press secretary made $80,153. Last year, Clark’s took home $108,655, a difference of 35.5 per cent.

Likely wasn’t a stress-free job in Campbell’s final year either.

The Ministry of Natural Gas Development is on track to spending $2.58 billion (2013/14 to 2018/19). Natural gas royalties are on track to bring in $1.65 billion over the same period.

Prosperity, B.C. is just around the bend.

On January 1, MSP premiums rose 4.1 per cent. In the first 9 months of 2015, the average hourly wage in B.C. fell 5.0 per cent.

Even with the government’s so-called premium relief, total MSP premium revenue is set to increase $124 million this year to $2.55 billion.

Back in 2010/11, it brought in $1.79 billion.

Going into the budget, 800,000 residents paid “no premiums at all,” according to the government’s talking point on the issue dating to 2011.

No word yet on how many more won’t be paying as a result of the government’s plan to reduce the impact of MSP premiums, while increasing total revenue by $124 million over last year.

The government did issue a news release last week targeting seniors with the question “Medical Services Plan premium assistance: Do you qualify?”

Here’s a wild idea: instead of a news release, how about getting information to every senior in B.C. that qualifies? Revenue Canada can help in that regard.

But then that might blow a hole in the budget.

One company makes money out of B.C.’s health care system. Since 2010/11, US-based MAXIMUS has billed the government $307 million to administer MSP services.

Its CEO – Richard Montoni – made $6.2 million US last year.

B.C. may have some of Canada’s lowest tax burdens for high-income earners, not so much for the poor or middle-class.

According to the budget, a single individual earning $80,000 in B.C. pays $7,828 in provincial taxes. In Alberta, they would pay $8,106, Ontario ($12,354) and Quebec ($19,911).

A two-income family of four earning $30,000 in B.C. pays $2,687. In Alberta, it would be $871, Ontario ($2,381) and Quebec ($650).

God help them if they get a $1 raise, because the full MSP hit will kick-in.

Like any government that just increased the budget for its communications’s office, it’s expected they’ll do inter-provincial tax comparisons most favourable to their political spin. Other provinces do the same.

So let’s see how B.C. stacks up in Manitoba’s analysis.

A single-parent earning $30,000 would have paid $802 in provincial taxes last year in B.C. In Alberta, they would have received $329 from the government, in Ontario paid $31 and in Quebec they’d get back $2,071.

A two-income family of five earning $75,000 would have paid $4,409 in B.C., Alberta ($460), Ontario ($3,577) and Quebec ($7,161).

At least British Columbians can take comfort in the knowledge that there’s $100 million sitting doing nothing in B.C.’s newfangled Prosperity Fund.

Back in 2013, when the idea was announced, Clark’s advisor – Pamela Martin – tweeted: “what would you do with a trillion dollars? A Once-in-a-generation bonanza (sic).”

Only $999 billion, 900 million more to find out.

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