While the corporate media’s attention was focused on demonstrations outside the Legislature in Victoria, the BC government’s 2020 budget was delivered inside on February 18. Anti-poverty groups, some of which rely on provincial funding to maintain their operations, expressed frustration that the budget failed to bring substantial progress towards reducing the rate of child poverty. Statistics from two years ago indicate that one-in-five children in British Columbia live below the poverty line, the eighth highest rate in Canada.
One response came from First Call, the child and youth advocacy coalition of 108 organizations which focuses on public education, community mobilization and changes in public policy.
First Call coordinator Adrienne Montani said the budget followed through on some previous promises, including the BC Child Opportunity Benefit and the elimination of MSP premiums, but fell short on new initiatives and investments to assist children, youth and their families.
Montani was concerned that the budget fails to put more in early childhood and infant development, poverty reduction, better access to quality childcare, and supports for youth aging out of care at age 18. She also pointed out that higher earnings exemptions for people receiving social or disability assistance are helpful for those who can work, but not for those who can’t, including parents raising children with complex needs or parents who have a disability themselves. She also expressed disappointment that the government did not raise assistance rates for families living in deep poverty.
Like other progressive groups, First Call welcomed the changes to the tax rate on income over $220,000, from 16% up to 20.5%. But this shift will recover only a tiny fraction of the enormous tax cuts to the wealthy and the corporate sector granted by the BC Liberals early in their 16-year term in office.
The budget contains a small increase for public education, which has been underfunded for decades, going back to the NDP governments of the 1990s and the Socreds before then. First Call stresses that bigger spending is needed to restore equity to the system, so that children with special needs are fully included, and to close the gap between “have not” public schools and those in wealthier communities with greater fundraising capacity and the ability to attract international students.
BC Teachers Federation president Teri Mooring says the budget fails to deal with ongoing teacher shortages across the province, and the lack of supports for special needs students. Many school districts are unable to hire enough teachers, says Mooring, and the low salary level for new teachers is one reason. Some districts have even begun to hire uncertified applicants to fill classroom positions.
“Education is underfunded in BC, at $1800 per student less than the national average. We know that our teachers are paid the second-lowest nationally,” Mooring told the media, urging the government to tackle the problem sooner rather than later.
Another big concern about Finance Minister Carole James’ budget is the lack of new investments in affordable housing, and the delay in delivering on existing commitments. This will only deepen BC’s housing crisis.
The BC Non-Profit Housing Association (BCNPHA) and the Co-operative Housing Federation of BC (CHF BC) argued in a joint response that with the land and construction costs of developing affordable housing still rising, the province is falling behind on its goal of building 114,000 rental homes by 2028. According to these groups, projected completions in BC Housing’s Service Plan already appear to have dropped by roughly 2,400 homes in the first four years of the government’s 10-year plan.
The government is also adopting the neoliberal strategy of downloading costs onto municipal governments, for example by a 2% reduction of funding for public transit. BC Transit, the crown agency responsible for transit bus service outside the Metro Vancouver region, is being forced to dip into reserve funds to hold service levels.
The Finance Minister claims that BC Transit should use its own reserves first in order to cover day-to-day needs. “Rather than have them build up a big surplus, we want to use those dollars for transit we want to make sure they’re using the resources for transit,” said James. “So, the budget drops for the year that they use their surplus up, and then they’ll get the money back.”
The same reasoning was used during the Liberal era, when Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark defined any funds sitting temporarily in a school district bank account – such as money to pay teacher salaries – as a “surplus”. That lie was used over and over again to justify keeping the lid on education spending.
In total, the February 18 budget froze or cut funding at 13 of 20 ministries, a reduction of $300 million annually. This was described in the corporate media as “key to keeping the budget balanced during tight economic times.” Left unmentioned were figures that put the issue into a very different perspective.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives BC office points out that “in the fiscal plan presented, each of the next three years includes roughly $1 billion tucked away in surpluses, forecast allowances and general contingency funds.” The budget also assumes that economic growth will be slower than private sector forecasts suggest, meaning that available tax revenues are understated. The CCPA adds that “even with the added tax bracket, the highest income earners continue to have lower personal tax rates than their counterparts in most other provinces.”
And finally, the organization notes that “if BC dedicated the same share of GDP to public spending as we did in 2000, we’d have an additional $7 billion this year to invest.”
Looking at all the numbers, Communist Party of BC leader George Gidora put it this way: “This government has all the tools it needs to make dramatic and immediate improvements in the lives of low-income British Columbians, to offer a much better deal to teachers in the current collective bargaining, and to strengthen housing and public transit. Instead, the NDP still panders to the wealthy and the corporations. That cynical opportunist calculation is an appalling betrayal of the confidence of those who voted NDP in 2017.”