The three-year provincial budget unveiled by finance minister Colin Hansen Tuesday has something for everyone, Prince George North MLA Pat Bell says.
“It’s a very balanced budget,” Bell said Tuesday after Hansen read the budget speech in the legislature. “It has the single-largest debt reduction in B.C. history. We’ve virtually doubled the level at which people pay tax, and we have increased spending significantly in health care and education.”
The budget includes a $1.7-billion debt payment; $484 million in tax and Medical Service Plan premium deductions this year (most people earning less than $16,000 a year will pay no tax), $496 million in 2006/2007 and $501 million in 2007/2008; and a $1.5-billion increase in health care funding.
There are also benefits for Prince George and the north, Bell said, including $16 million for communities in mountain pine beetle-affected areas and $85 million in major reforestation in those areas.
“We think this is the type of budget government should provide over the long term,” Bell said, stressing the budget outlines spending over the next three years. “This government has brought real fiscal discipline,” he said, adding three-year budgets are new to the province. “For three years in a row, every ministry has hit its (budget) targets.”
The budget includes:
*$194 million to increase income assistance for persons with disabilities by $70 per month;
* A $1.5-billion funding increase in health care funding, including an additional $465 million for Pharmacare and $200 million for better access to hip and knee replacements, diagnostics, and other acute care services;
* An increase to $400,000 from $300,000 in the threshold to allow more small business to qualify for the lower 4.5 per cent small business tax rate;
* $95 million to return 100 per cent of traffic fine revenues to 70 municipalities;
* $36 million for social housing;
* $438 million for highway rehabilitation and $225 for Interior and rural roads;
* $32 million for airport and port improvements, including Prince George.
The budget also included several previously-made commitments, such as adding 25,000 new post-secondary spaces by 2010, and increasing education funding by $150 million.
Hansen forecasted a surplus of at least $1.3 billion when the fiscal year ends in April, and surpluses of $220 million next year, and $200 million in the two years after that, supported by “cushions” of forecast allowances and contingency reserves.
“The decade of decline is clearly behind us,” Hansen said. “The promise we made was to restore hope and prosperity -that was the plan. We’ve followed it through. Today’s budget demonstrates beyond a doubt the plan is working.”
Deborah Poff, the NDP candidate for Prince George North, said she was shocked as she watched Hansen’s speech.
“My jaw was literally dropping,” she said. “I think the budget is stunning in its cynicism. They’re giving money to the very people they’ve harmed over the past three-and-a-half years.”
She said the Liberals manufactured a debt problem in 2001 by offering tax cuts to the wealthy, and cut from everyone vulnerable – children, the disabled, and seniors.
“Now – heroes that they are, and funny this is right before the election – they’re saying they always cared for these people.”
She said the Liberals are betting people will forget the early years of belt-tightening.
“They are hoping people in the north will have a big case of amnesia,” she said. “They believe people will be so naive or forgetful as to re-elect them.”
Prince George-Omineca MLA Paul Nettleton said the budget a “token” one.
“This reminds of people finding God on their deathbeds,” he said. “This is an attempt to alleviate some of the hardship they created for low- and middle-income people. But they’re token amounts.”
He predicts most of the funding announced will stay in the Lower Mainland.
“It’s tied to winning seats in the real heartland to them – large urban centres,” he said. “In the north, we need to work together to hold (Premier Gordon) Campbell’s administration to the fire to live up to its commitments to returning to the north its fair shares of revenues from the north. This administration has no heart for the so-called heartlands.”
Much of the money making up the surplus is one-time federal funding, he added.