3) SOME POSITIVES, BUT THE B.C. BUDGET FALLS FAR SHORT

 

Communist Party of BC commentary, Feb. 24, 2019

 

The BC Provincial Budget released on February 19 includes some items that benefit working people, but falls far short in many areas. While the Communist Party of BC welcomes the positive elements of the Budget 2019, we are not surprised that the NDP government refuses to challenge the "balanced budget" dogmas of neoliberal economics, or to reverse Gordon Campbell's massive tax cuts for the wealthy and the corporate sector. Just as important, the government remains committed to the resource extraction and export strategies upheld throughout the history of capitalist British Columbia following colonization. These realities place severe limits on this government's ability to tackle deep social or environmental problems in any long-term consistent way, whatever the intentions of many MLAs who come from social justice backgrounds.

 

The Communist Party of BC has spoken out many times about the disgraceful poverty rates in our wealthy province. Budget 2019 addresses some of the most urgent needs in a limited way, but without really trying to eliminate poverty in BC. This is damaging to individuals and families living in poverty, and expensive to our overall economy. The CCPA has calculated that poverty costs BC between $8.1 and $9.2 billion annually. People living in poverty have highly increased rates of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, dental problems and other health related issues, and are more likely to face homelessness and substance use issues, increasing the costs of health care, policing, etc.

 

The total elimination of poverty should be the goal of this government, but while Budget 2019 does increase child and family supports for low income families, the increase in rates for social assistance and disability recipients is a mere $50 per month. The new “BC Child Opportunity Benefit” will extend benefits to families with children up to the age of 18, indexed to inflation. But this will not kick in until October 2020, a long time to wait for families already suffering extreme financial hardship.

 

Families providing foster care will be given an increase in funding, and the improvement in kinship care funding will put some of these families on the same level as foster families. This is especially important for Indigenous children and families who rely heavily on extended family to support children in need.

 

Changing the definition of common-law relationships to align with family law will be a positive boost for single mothers on social assistance who have been forced into economic dependence on a partner.

 

This budget makes some progress towards a poverty reduction strategy, by investing in other areas to support precarious and vulnerable people. Along with improved social services for family and children, the Budget includes improvements to employment training programs provide by WorkBC; funding for access to justice including new Indigenous legal clinics; additional funding to increase access to adult basic education and English language training; a small increase for trades training; funding to bring high speed internet access to 200 rural and indigenous communities this year; funds for BC Transit to improve bus services for over 30 communities around the province, and improvements to the Handy Dart system; increased health and addiction services for youth and children.

 

The Employment Standards Branch receives a much needed $14 million increase, to improve enforcement of existing and forthcoming employment standards that exist only on paper for many vulnerable and precarious workers. We will be watching carefully as the Legislature resumes to see if this welcome initiative is followed up by much needed reforms to the Employment Standards Act and the Labour Code of BC.

The Budget eliminates interest on student loans, removing a $318 million burden off the backs of students when they graduate. This is especially welcome for low income students, most of whom have to work at several jobs to pay for their living expenses while studying. The Communist Party calls to replace student loans with grants, to fully remove the financial burden from students; this measure is a step in the right direction, but in our opinion does not go far enough.

 

At our Party's BC Provincial Convention held December 2017, we said,

 

“The priority of the Horgan government should be initiatives to greatly improve public transit, and to expand value-added industries based on forestry, fishing and environmental restoration. Central to this demand would be a ban on the export of raw logs and “cants” (logs that been minimally processed) and instead to use the resource for local manufacturing, such as furniture and pre-fabricated housing modules. Other resource industries that have been British Columbia’s traditional employment base can and should be rehabilitated and expanded. For decades, the fishing sector was a major employer, but this resource has been devastated, and all processing has been moved offshore. We call for plans to re-build fish stocks, and to rehabilitate habitat and restore local seafood processing facilities in our coastal communities, which would employ thousands. The recent huge escape of Atlantic salmon proves that our Party and others have been right to demand an end to ocean-based fish farms, which are a dangerous threat to Pacific salmon.”

 

The 2019 budget does not address these issues in a meaningful way, except for some large commitments to improve transit around the province, and not just in the Greater Vancouver area. Our resource industries have been devastated by bad conservation practises over many decades. The forestry and fisheries are renewable resources, and if managed correctly can provide jobs and income for smaller BC communities for many years to come. Processing these resources here in BC and within local communities using green technology and adding value before export has been one of our most basic demands for years and still remains a viable alternative.

 

Despite their tough stand on the Trans-Mountain Pipeline, this government betrayed the hopes of those who thought it would stop the Site “C” dam project. This budget forges ahead with LNG pipeline and export facilities on the central coast, setting back the province’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions, which must now be recouped from other areas of the economy. While the LNG project  provides initial employment, it only requires a small permanent maintenance workforce. This project endangers inland communities, ignores Indigenous rights to free and informed prior consent, and threatens west coast marine habitat. This project should be cancelled, and the money invested in the newly created CleanBC Environment Plan, which does have many positive programs. The commitment of $679 million for the Plan is a good start, but much more could be added by re-directing money from environmentally damaging projects.

 

The 2018 budget had a large focus on housing. Several initiatives were taken, including a speculation tax and a promise to create 114,000 new housing units province-wide over 10 years. Unfortunately they are not on track with that promise; at present, there is only a financial commitment for 34,000 units over 10 years. Despite the commitment to provide more modular housing to address the homeless crisis, Budget 2019 adds only 200 more units, and provides just $15 million to develop a provincial homelessness strategy. It is estimated that there is a real need for 10,000 low cost rental units in the Metro Vancouver area alone. It is a disgrace that so many people are homeless while there is an estimated $1 trillion in property wealth in this province, with the vast majority belonging to the wealthiest residents and offshore property owners. If even a fraction of that amount can be captured through higher taxes and fees on the most expensive properties, this could be used to help the most needy find shelter for themselves and their families.

 

Other measures include accelerating $38 million in grants to housing providers in the next fiscal year, and $10 million to establish a provincial rent bank (which is welcome, but ultimately a band-aid solution in the context of a major housing crisis). What is most needed are stronger measures to increase rental subsidies to low income families, and to vastly increase the supply of affordable rental units. We have called for the end of demovictions, and action to build thousands of affordable rental units. This budget falls far short of what is really needed.

 

Budget 2019 boosts funding to the public health care system by $1.3 billion over the next three years, including supports to the BC Children’s and Women’s hospitals, the BC Cancer Agency and adding coverage for new drugs to the PharmaCare program. This comes after a range of important commitments made last year, including major investments in seniors’ care, urgent primary care centres, PharmaCare coverage for low income earners, reducing surgical wait times and increasing access to diagnostic services like MRIs. But more funding is still needed to develop the health care workforce, as well as roll out team-based community health centres.

Cleaners, food services and laundry services should be returned to the public sector, with those workers seamlessly moved into the public health care system. Private and P3 contracting should be eliminated.

Overall, health care spending remains sustainable, and in fact is projected to fall from 7.8% of GDP in 2011/12 to 7.2% 2021/22. There is room to increase investments where needed.

The budget adds $74 million over three years to increase mental health and addiction services, and a $30 million increase to respond to the opioid overdose emergency (building on $578 million already funded since the Budget update in September 2017). But amid an overdose crisis taking an average of four lives every single day, the government should provide all additional resources needed to save lives, including to ensure that those suffering with addictions have access to a safe, reliable supply of opioids (as opposed to a toxic, unpredictable street supply).

Funding is also needed for secondary and long term recovery. Without long term peer support, a large percentage of users relapse when placed back into the same environment that led to their problems. The support system needed for long term sobriety is almost entirely run by volunteers, who give their time and experience to assist those in recovery. A provincial strategy is necessary to address the needs of the thousands who are struggling with substance use disorders.

$550 million of new funding is allocated to public education over three years. But as enrolment continues to grow, new funds are required to improve class-size, class-composition, and specialist teacher staffing ratios. The 3,700 new teaching positions funded by this government to date are a result of the BCTF's Supreme Court win against the Liberal attacks on teachers' collective agreement language. Now, a new funding model is needed, to provide much larger increases in education spending. Such a model should include an end to funding supports for religious and elite private schools.

The Budget allocates some new funding towards the stated ten-year goal of creating a quality, affordable child care system in BC. The "$10aDay Plan" child care campaign wants the government to go further, by increasing wages to help recruit and retain early childhood educators, creating new child care programs with public partners and non-profits, to take more steps to lower parent fees, and to create a separate capital budget for child care infrastructure.

In short, this Budget, like other measures by the NDP government, does shift from the policies of the corporate-dominated Liberals, whose aim was to maximize profits for their political friends, not to provide services for the people who create the immense wealth of this province. However, while this budget does not inflict the damage of the Liberal era, the positive elements are too little, and being implemented much too slowly - primarily because the NDP's adherence to balanced budget policies and its refusal to implement a truly progressive taxation system leave little fiscal room for the type of bold reforms and investments that could a real difference for working people.

 

(The above article is from the March 16-31, 2019, issue of People's Voice, Canada's leading socialist newspaper. Articles can be reprinted free if the source is credited. Subscription rates in Canada: $30/year, or $15 low income rate; for U.S. readers - $45 US per year; other overseas readers - $45 US or $50 CDN per year. Send to People's Voice, c/o PV Business Manager, 706 Clark Drive, Vancouver, BC, V5L 3J1.)