MLA Katrine Conroy gives provincial budget a failing grade

Kootenay West MLA Katrine Conroy calls the BC budget “disappointing and a real concern for this region.”

Kootenay West MLA Katrine Conroy calls the B.C. government’s tabled stay-the-course budget “disappointing and a real concern for this region.”

Budget 2012, which was presented Tuesday by Finance Minister Kevin Falcon, sits at $44 billion and forecasts a deficit of almost $1 billion but aims for a small surplus just in time for the election in the spring next year.

Falcon laid out a plan that dropped the deficit to $968 million in 2012-13 with surpluses of $154 million in 2013-14 and $250 million in 2014-15 with plans to tighten handouts to taxpayers and businesses.

But Conroy finds this hard to believe.

“When the NDP left office in 2001, there was a surplus of around $3 billion and now we’re looking at a $4-billion deficit and that will increase,” she said from Victoria. “It’s a worry on how they’ve mismanaged the province in the last 10 years.”

The budget did not have any funding for the forestry industry, said Conroy, though a report released by the Auditor General for British Columbia states that the existing management practices are insufficient to protect the province against declining timber supply and reduced species diversity.

“The forest industry is a big provider of employment in our region and there’s absolutely nothing there to deal with the issues raised about forest health and the mismanagement of the industry,” she said.

Over the next three years, the government plans on containing spending growth to an annual average of two per cent while continuing to protect health care and education funding.

Health care spending in B.C. will increase an average 3.2 per cent per year over the next three years – a total of $1.5 billion over the next three years to nearly $17.3 billion by 2014-15.

Falcon says the province has been working to reduce the seven per cent annual increases seen in budgets between 2005 and 2008, but Conroy said the new plan still doesn’t address ongoing health care issues logically.

“There were things that could have been dealt with that wouldn’t have cost much but in the long run would have saved government money but probably not in their one-year/pre-election term that they’re looking at,” she said.

She said the budget ignored recommendations made in the ombudsman’s report on seniors recently released, but instead made commitments to seniors that didn’t quite fit.

Conroy is talking about a $1,000 grant for seniors who spend over $10,000 in renovations.

“For some seniors that’s pretty significant. I don’t know too many seniors who are going to be doing $10,000 in renos,” she said. “Wouldn’t that money have been better spent in supporting home support so that seniors can stay in their homes longer?”

Plans to increase Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums to generate $87 million a year for health care is also concerning for Conroy.

MSP will rise by four per cent – about $5 a month for a family of three – after three straight years of six-per-cent increases.

Education was another hot button, with the budget calling for $70 million in administrative savings in post-secondary education between 2013 and 2015.

“Selkirk College is struggling to manage its budget and to not have a deficit budget and there didn’t seem to be any hope or opportunities for support from this budget for post-secondary institutions,” she said.

Meanwhile, funding to education will increase over the next three years for K-12, with spending going up by an average of 0.6 per cent per year while advanced education funding increases by an average of 1.6 per cent per year.

In addition to the $4.7 billion a year districts will receive for the next three years, the government is investing an additional $165 million to establish a fund to deal directly with issues of class composition.

A key aspect of the government’s plan to reduce the deficit is the sale of $700 million worth of surplus assets, including its monopoly on wholesale liquor distribution and unused land held by the government, health authorities and school boards.

“I know some of the community schools are concerned because school districts can sell off buildings now that aren’t working for them,” said Conroy. “I think tough choices are going to be made by the school district, I empathize with the district because it’s difficult.”

In contrary to previous years, the province proposed its first corporate-tax hikes since the B.C. Liberal Party came to power in 2001.

Even so, Conroy found it difficult to find one aspect of the budget that she favoured.

“A year can be a long time in politics but from what I’m hearing from people, people are pretty fed up with the Liberal style of governing,” she said.

-With files from CP