Next week’s budget will be historic, for a number of reasons. Rob Shaw looks ahead.
B.C. will table its first pandemic budget on Tuesday, and it will most likely make nobody truly happy.
The province has so many competing interests during this crisis, it’s hard to even catalogue them all.
There’s the $25-billion health care system that needs an enormous cash infusion to keep fighting COVID-19, the long-term seniors’ care sector that has been hardest hit by outbreaks and deaths, the aid required for sectors of the economy still battered by public health restrictions, and the economic stimulus needed to kickstart recovery when the pandemic is over.
Tens of billions of dollars will flow just to those items alone. And that’s not counting the regular budget pressures for social assistance, disability, climate change, parks, wildfires, road maintenance, and more.
The deficit will be many billions of dollars, with the lingering effects of the pandemic throwing any possibility of balanced budgets into doubt for at least several years.
All of which presents a political opportunity to for B.C. NDP government, should it wish to take it.
Finance Minister Selina Robinson has leeway to spend big in her new fiscal plan, and that could allow New Democrats to make major gains on lagging election promises, as well as knock off some items on its long-term political wish list.
One area to watch is child care.
The NDP has had difficulty turning its 2017 election promise of $10 a day child care into reality, mainly because it’s so expensive. In four years, it has only managed to fund 2,500 “prototype” spaces at $10 a day – and even those, only because Ottawa kicked in most of the cash.
The province has fiddled at the edges of the file, offering fee reductions based on income levels and a variety of other half-measures that in no way even remotely fulfil its election promise.
If ever there was a time for New Democrats to make up lost ground on child care, it’s now. The multi-billion-dollar investment could be couched as part of economic recovery, allowing parents to return to work more easily when the pandemic subsidies later this year.
The capacity to run large deficits in the short-term without public blowback, combined with the fact the NDP still has a fresh mandate, means the government could brush aside any immediate criticism, spend big, and have a functioning universal $10 a day system up and running by the time it goes back to the polls in four years.
Another area the government has wide leeway to reform is seniors’ care. Most of B.C.’s deaths during the pandemic occurred in long-term care and assisted living homes, where the virus entered through staff and spread wildly among the fragile elderly.
The throne speech said funding is coming to fix the “cracks” revealed by the pandemic in these facilities. The NDP have long opposed the private operation of seniors’ care homes, the vast disparity of wages between operators and too-often poor treatment of staff (it has already banned the sector’s frequent use of contract-flipping, where for many years it routinely fired employees en masse and rehired them at lower wages).
The pandemic has borne out many of the NDP’s concerns as legitimate.
The fact government had to intervene and top-up staff wages in private care facilities so that they could afford to only work at one facility and reduce transmission during the pandemic is all the evidence the NDP needs to wade into the sector with major reforms, and new funding to back up the changes.
Ideally, that money would come with a promise to conduct an independent review of how and why our province was unable to protect its most vulnerable elderly during the crisis, so that the overall system moves in the right direction.
Then there is sick pay.
The BC Federation of Labour has been pushing for paid sick leave for workers for years now – and the stars may have aligned in just the right way.
Ottawa’s paid sick-leave program for COVID-19 has been an inadequate mess. It pays less than minimum wage, creates a financial disincentive for workers and has so many eligibility rules and criteria as to be functionally useless.
The Fed is pushing hard to get B.C. to create its own program, noting half the workers in this province get no paid sick days at all, and can’t afford to stay home when sick, so they risk spreading the virus to co-workers and customers at their worksites.
It has proposed a system that reimburses people at their paid wage, and is quick and easy to use, so that workers who are sick aren’t pressured financially to show up at work.
The question is, who pays for it?
The Fed have slyly suggested employers foot the bill, with government reimbursing those businesses during the pandemic. Once the crisis is over, presumably, employers would get stuck with the cost.
Premier John Horgan has said he doesn’t want to saddle businesses struggling to survive with more expenses.
The obvious solution is government pays…for now. Perhaps a one-year program that can be revisited in the future. If it can be argued it will reduce the spread of the virus, and improve the health and safety of workers and our economy, then money, at least in the short term, is no object.
“This is a budget that continues to take care of British Columbians as we also prepare for recovery,” Robinson said this week in previewing her plan.
It will be a budget unlike any we’ve ever seen in B.C.’s history.
Rob Shaw has spent more than 13 years covering BC politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for The Orca. He is the co-author of the national best-selling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.
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