British Columbia’s fiscal fate clouded with uncertainty but summer HST referendum promises to heat up the debate

May 13th 2011: Despite the leadership changes in the wind for the BC Liberals and the New Democrats, Finance Minister Colin Hansen introduced a budget on February 15th 2011. While it may have seemed strange to lay out a complete fiscal plan in the middle of a leadership contest, it was actually mandated by provincial legislation. The BC Finance Minister is bound by statutory obligation to introduce a budget on the third Tuesday of February every year. By and large, the consensus was that there was little appetite on either side of the house to debate the specifics of the budget given that the two leadership campaigns were scheduled for spring.

Much has happened since this budget’s introduction: for starters, British Columbia has a new premier for the first time in a decade! On February 26th, Christiana “Christy” Clark won the leadership of the BC Liberal party. She was sworn in on March 14th, replacing long-time premier Gordon Campbell. Premier Christy Clark had to win her seat in this week’s (May 11th 2011) by-election, which she did, by a margin of only 600 votes. Despite the party’s best efforts, Ms. Clark emerged slightly tarnished, facing criticism for engaging negative campaigning and bowing out of the candidates debate.

On Sunday April 17th, the B.C. New Democrats selected left-leaning candidate Adrian Dix as their new leader. If the by-election is any indication of what is to come during an election that could arrive as soon as fall, it’s going to be tough slogging for the Grits. And to think the year began with a wallflower budget…

Click here to read the Budget Document

What’s in the 2011 BC budget?

Minister Hansen said this would be a status quo budget containing only minor housekeeping items, tax measures and regulations. To a certain extent, this proved to be true: it did not commit the province to any large or unusual new spending items. Given that budgets in BC are typically given monikers – you might, as did the Globe and Mail’s Justine Hunter, call this one the “wallflower” budget. The budget has been received with perfunctory criticism, but has yet to garner much praise. Perhaps the reason this wallflower has not been asked to dance is not because of its shyness (forgettable, uninspired and written in ink destined to fade) but because of its unpopularity. A potentially significant increase in the Medical Services Plan (MSP) monthly premiums has surreptitiously been slipped into the line items. This increase has the potential to impose a hardship on BC seniors. Effective January 1, 2012, MSP premiums will be increased by about 6%. The Globe and Mail quoted an anonymous source alleging that the province has plans to increase premiums every year in line with health-care spending—so this could be just the beginning. The measure has drawn an outcry from critics who say that the lack of investment in health care is already placing a strain on seniors. Debra McPherson, president of the British Columbia Nurses’ Union said that BC was “already losing services for frail seniors that would allow them to stay in their homes.” Earlier this year, the provincial government told health authorities that it would not provide more money to bridge a projected $360-million collective shortfall, resulting in sweeping reviews. NDP MLA Katrine Conroy, the Opposition Seniors Critic, said that the premium increase, when combined with mounting long-term care costs and the added imposition of the HST would make it even more difficult for seniors to make ends meet. On the other hand, MSP premiums have been unchanged in BC since 2002 and health care costs have climbed by 45% since then, claiming increasingly unsustainable shares of provincial health care budgets. All of the provinces need to find solutions to prevent health care from swallowing their budgets whole. “CARP is keenly aware of the pressures on health care funding and the need to focus on value for money,” says Susan Eng, CARP VP of Advocacy.