Provincial powers that be are quick to boast about a financial surplus in prosperous B.C.
“But on who’s back?” questions Katrine Conroy. “They keep saying, ‘we are doing so well’ – but who’s doing so well?”
After more than a decade in politics, the Kootenay West MLA has seen industries struggle, school districts unable to make ends meet, poverty rise, and an ever growing need for food banks in her riding.
None of these economic and social conditions are acknowledged in the government’s 2016 budget, she says, adding of particular concern is the broken promise to make education a number one priority.
“They keep telling school districts they have to cut their low hanging fruit – well there is no more to cut,” Conroy told the Trail Times. “Kids are already struggling and now they’re talking about making cuts to cleaning and buses.”
Being a mother and grandmother herself, Conroy knows firsthand how quickly a bug can spread in the schoolyard.
She likens cutting essentials like cleaning products to students bringing their own pen and paper to class.
“I equate this to kids having to bring supplies and computer paper,” Conroy said. “What will it be next, cleaning supplies?
“Every kid will have to bring a mop and Mr. Clean,” she continued, clearly exasperated. “It’s just ridiculous. Local school districts in my constituency are struggling to provide the education they know the students in this area deserve. The government has chosen not to address these important concerns and is allowing the education system to suffer.”
Another budget letdown is the omission of Adult Upgrading Grants (AUG), she explained, referring to the program that helps adults demonstrating financial need who are enrolled in skills upgrading, education and training courses.
Conroy points out the matter is of utmost concern, especially when course costs can near $500.
“I challenged the ministry when I gave my speech last night (Wednesday),” Conroy said. “I asked if they were going to be returning AUGs and ensuring people are going to get those grants.
“He (Andrew Wilkinson, Minister of Advanced Education) ignored me or yelled a non-sensical response,” she said. “Obviously they are not, or he would have been proud of that and wanting to share it.”
While she acknowledged a budget increase for the Ministry of Social Development and Social Innovation as a positive, Conroy questions if funding will trickle into the Trail office and improve service for local service recipients.
“I don’t know if this will actually help the situation with the Trail office only being open from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.” she explained. “People get there early to get in line, and then can’t be seen before the office closes – so they have to go all the way back to Castlegar and try again the next day. It’s a concern.”
Another budget increase funneled toward the vulnerable may look good on paper – but not so fast, Conroy warns.
She was speaking about a $77 monthly increase for those designated Person with Disabilities (PWD).
That’s only for people who don’t require a bus pass or transportation subsidy, Conroy pointed out. Those that do, will receive a much smaller amount.
“If they buy a monthly bus pass, they might end up with only $25,” she said. “Or they might get $77. But what’s that going to today,” Conroy added. “When there’s been so little investment in helping PWD in this province for so long.”
Mentioning Inclusion BC, Conroy said PWD rates haven’t been increased since 2001 and people with disabilities continue to lose ground, year after year in their fight for the most basic necessities of life.
Changes to MSP (Medical Services Plan) premiums are another red herring, Conroy maintains.
“They are crowing about MSP, which just went up in January and there will be another increase in January 2017,” she said. “After that, you will no longer have to pay for children, which is great.
“However, if you don’t have children at home, your rates will go up. So for over a half million people in the province, the rates are going up.”
The entire medical system requires an update, she continued.
“Even the premier said this is an old fashioned and outdated tax, then did nothing really to change it. Let’s get rid of it and find better and more cost effective ways to deliver health care.”
Next, Conroy weighed in on a local hot topic that she says was negated from the the budget.
“There’s nothing about the environment, natural resources or protecting biodiversity,” she explained. “They’ve brought these divisive policies that pit resident hunters and guide outfitters against trappers and First Nation rights,” she said.
“They need to throw out those policies that have people arguing about who can go where, and what should go where,” Conroy added. “I know all these groups care about conservation in this province and a healthy habitat for animals, so we need to be investing and working together.”
Finally, the Trail Times asked Conroy if the 2016 budget is geared toward next year’s provincial election.
“Darn right it is,” she said, referring to the $100 million Prosperity Fund. “Only 25 per cent of that is going to accumulate earnings for future generations, 50 per cent will go into debt retirement of government strategic priorities.”
Clarifying that statement, Conroy said to her, that means the government wants to use the money prior to the election.
“There’s two things with this money – 25 per cent of that is for core government priorities in the future, and for me, that means the premier’s private slush fund for photo ops and to buy people off before the next election,” she concluded. “This is not a budget for B.C. families, this budget rewards the wealthiest of British Columbians at the expense of all other citizens.”