NDP’s Ralston blasts BC Libs’ ‘political love affair with Tories.’
By Andrew MacLeod, Today, TheTyee.ca
BC Finance Minister Kevin Falcon: ‘This is a good budget.’
British Columbia Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said he likes the overall direction of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s federal budget, but has some concerns about costs it will add for the province.
The finance critic for B.C.’s New Democratic Party, Bruce Ralston, said the provincial government needs to do a lot more to advocate for the province’s interests in Ottawa.
"This is a good budget, both as a British Columbian and a Canadian," Falcon told reporters in Victoria.
Suggesting a comparison with the provincial budget he presented Feb. 21, Falcon said the federal budget is the right one at a time when other jurisdictions are stagnating and some are close to collapsing.
"I think they struck the balance frankly between some modest spending discipline without going overboard and jeopardizing a very fragile economic system in the country," he said.
The budget sets a credible path back to a balanced budget and will help maintain the country’s triple-A credit rating, he said. "We benefit from the strong Canadian brand, so I’m very encouraged overall."
BC working with feds: Falcon
Falcon highlighted a couple areas where federal decisions will add costs for the province.
As announced in September, health transfers will rise by six per cent a year until 2016-2017, then will be capped at the rate of growth of national nominal GDP. Transfers will still be guaranteed to increase by at least three percent a year.
Falcon said he supports the principle and that it will avoid swings in health spending, but a per capita funding model is needed that allows for British Columbia’s older population compared to other provinces.
B.C. officials including Premier Christy Clark have raised the issue since the federal announcement, but Falcon said Harper’s government is yet to move on it. "We will continue to push for that."
The other big unknown is the costs the federal government’s omnibus crime bill C-10 will add for the province, he said. "We’re going to continue to work with the federal government to see whether we can have something that reflects the fact that there are going to be potential additional costs on the province resulting from that and we think that should be reflected."
The federal government also announced that as of 2023 the age for receiving old age benefits will increase from 65 to 67, meaning the change will affect everyone who is under 54 today, Falcon said.
"We have to do a little more work on that issue," he said, acknowledging it may add more people turning to the province for help. "We’re going to have to look at that and see what that means, particularly for lower income folks who may be relying on that GIS and OAS in 2023."
Fixed timelines welcome
Falcon welcomed the federal government’s planned changes to the environmental assessment process. The changes may speed approvals and reduce overlap between the two levels of government, he said.
"I think we have a very good environmental assessment process we can be proud of and what the federal government is saying is in the cases where we are having duplication in the environmental assessment process they’re prepared to allow the provincial processes to be utilized," he said.
Fixed timelines for assessments will help too, he said. "That will lend a lot of confidence to communities, to taxpayers and to investors that there is an end in sight when undertaking major investments," he said.
While saying he hadn’t seen the details, he said he supports the principle of tighter restrictions on charities that do political work.
"Charitable tax status is for charitable purposes and when charitable purposes are straying into political activities, I’m very concerned about that," he said. "I’ve seen that first hand and think that that’s something it’s worth them tightening up on."
Love affair with Tories hurts BC: Ralston
"The big thing is there’s nothing in the budget that deals with the cost of the federal crime bill," said NDP finance critic Ralston.
Quebec estimates the bill will cost it $600 million a year and Ontario expects added annual costs of $1 billion, he said. On a per capita basis, B.C. should expect a hit in the hundreds of millions, but the government has declined to offer any kind of an estimate, he said.
"This government seems to be silent," he said. "I just think that’s wrong and unacceptable."
The provincial government seems to be reluctant to criticize Harper’s government for political reasons, said Ralston. "The federal Tories seem to be off limits," he said. "I can only assume it’s because of their political love affair with the federal Tories and the premier’s effort to climb into bed with the federal Tories."
That lets down British Columbians, he said. "A legitimate willingness to express the interests of British Columbia and the fiscal capacity of British Columbians is an important part of the job."
The changes to old age payments will particularly hurt people who do physical work who may not be healthy enough to work past 65, Ralston said.
"The province may have to pick up those costs in terms of even social welfare costs," he said. The payments are income tested and go to people who need them, he said. "They’re not siphoning it offshore to the Grand Caymans or anything. They’re spending it on goods and services in their own communities. So it takes some money out of the economy that way, so in that sense it’s not good either."
Ralston also said Falcon is "completely mistaken" about B.C.’s environmental assessment process. A report by the Auditor General found that there is a lack of enforcement of the conditions that are included in the province’s environmental permits, he said.
"For him to say the process in British Colubmia is robust enough is just wrong," he said.
Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee’s legislative bureau chief in Victoria.