Cautious B.C. budget gives NDP’s enemies little ammunition

It reads more like a press release than a budget, more like an annual report than next year’s plan.

A Stronger BC, For Everyone arrives at that awkward phase of a government’s mandate – too late to introduce radical measures, too soon to make radical promises. Mostly, the third British Columbian budget under the BC NDP reinforces a theme with slight fiddling instead of symphonic command.

Much of its documentation is a tick-the-box accounting of budgets one and two. It sets a modern-day record for the use of “over the past two years” in thanking itself in talking through its “stronger B.C. for everyone.” It finally sheds that lamentable slogan of “putting people first” and pivots to “putting children and families first.”

Mantras aside, the most critical macro-questions involve John Horgan government’s capacity to sidestep problems if economic headwinds somehow sweep the Left Coast. To that end, Finance Minister Carole James was assured in her step Tuesday, pledging a $203 million surplus for the year ending March 31 and in-the-black results well into the next mandate of whatever government is elected, even in her dialing back forecasts for the coming year.

As a political document, it is shrewd without being spendthrift.

Some signals emerge on the constituencies the NDP wishes to recruit and retain next election – $4 million in student grants that will be quickly gobbled up, health-care funds to reflect the bottomless need of an aging demography, frozen ICBC rates to placate drivers and pummel “rich” lawyers, and following through on a low-income family support program.

There is a natural inclination inherent in most NDP governments to protect us from ourselves: virtuous taxes on pops and vapes.

And, straight out of the playbook in order to make clear who is in and who is out, there is a new tax bracket on those earning $220,000 annually; million-dollar recipients will bear half of it.

When there is little formidable to announce, there is also little formidable to attack, so the document had the added benefit of muting the BC Liberals – dare they complain about the dousing of the ICBC dumpster fire as a money-laundering probe looms? – and giving the BC Greens nothing upon which to grouse and grow post-Andrew Weaver.

The markets ought not to get jittery, either, even if major capital projects will be financed with debt. The province maintains its triple-A credit rating and a decent debt-to-GDP ratio. The province will lead the national economy again, although the pace of progress is more marathoner than sprinter.

Mostly, the top stories were old news on housing and homelessness, infrastructure, child care benefits, Medical Service Plan shifts to business from individuals, removal of tolls and student loan interest, electric vehicle support, heat pumps. These aren’t inconsequential, but these aren’t the days of announcing more – those days are for the next document, the one that precedes an election.

One hint was in preliminary wording on a variety of transportation projects in the Fraser Valley and on Vancouver Island. Another is in some sort of long-term revitalization plan for the besieged forestry sector. A third is likely legislation to help cities relieve businesses of onerous tax. James would like housing prices to come down more, but she wasn’t at all suggesting there are more taxes to come in that realm.

Of course, economic headlines these days aren’t on those granular matters but on the global sprawl of COVID-19, and on that score James didn’t sound anything close to the alarm bells her federal counterpart professed last week in predicting a “significant” impact on the economy. In a briefing for journalists, she asserted the province is in a “very strong position” to accommodate any outbreak and her government will monitor the tourism business and provide support to those affected – but she targeted nothing Tuesday in the interim.

It is getting well past the point of suggesting that the NDP government is merely the beneficiary of the Liberal benefactors. They could have mauled the economy on their own by now if they weren’t so judicious. It is true that the big-ticket spending on child care and housing is easing off for a couple of years and may be disguising the true liabilities of the spending plans, but the long-term economic strategies don’t appear to be marching the province to the apocalypse.

By most accounts, the Horgan-James combo ought to be seeking election in generally healthy times. For their opponents, this has to be an infuriating, infernal time of true soul-searching for a plan to prevent the minority government from a majority mandate.

Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of Business in Vancouver and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.