B.C.’s budget mum on new schools, hospitals, but election-year announcements still to come

Click to play video: 'More government spending expected before election'
More government spending expected before election
Despite delivering its 2024 budget this week, the NDP government is expected to announce a string of significant projects costing billions of dollars before the start of the fall election campaign. Richard Zussman reports. – Feb 23, 2024

Thursday’s B.C. provincial budget contained a record near-$90 billion in spending but appeared not to include a number of new big-ticket projects.

But the government says details about its spending plans aren’t all tucked into the document, meaning voters can expect a string of announcements before the official kickoff of the fall election campaign.

In Surrey, the province’s fastest-growing city, the apparent lack of major new projects struck a sour chord with Mayor Brenda Locke.

Click to play video: 'Reaction to the B.C. budget'
Reaction to the B.C. budget

“Incredibly disappointing and actually quite surprising to be frank — I know we have got that message loud and clear to the minister, the ministry and just about anybody who will talk to us about schools in Surrey,” she said. “I didn’t see the second tower for Surrey Memorial Hospital. It’s something I have raised several times with the minister and I know the doctors in Surrey have raised that as well.”

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The key could be buried deep in the budget. The province has allocated more than $18.7 billion in capital spending this fiscal year and has also given itself a $3.5 billion contingency fund for emergencies.

On Friday, Finance Minister Katrine Conroy denied that fund could be used to dole out election goodies.

“Contingencies are for things like climate emergencies, like wildfires … like flooding, drought. Drought is going to be an issue this year,” she told Global’s Focus BC.

“That’s hard to budget for, so those are the kinds of things that contingencies are for.”

Click to play video: 'B.C. Budget 2024: Big deficits with big spending'
B.C. Budget 2024: Big deficits with big spending


But Conroy admitted there are still numerous announcements to come this year.

Answering media questions ahead of the budget’s release, for example, she told reporters to keep an eye out for an announcement from the Ministry of Education on the long-promised Olympic Village school in Vancouver in the weeks to come — details of which weren’t in the document itself.

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“The money is there,” she said on Friday in response to questions about new school construction. “There is a process … the ministries go through when they are applying for things, whether its schools, hospitals, I mean there’s concern about the cancer centre in Kamloops — it’s there.”

Conroy said those big capital spends must be approved by the province’s Treasury Board before they will be announced, and that details will begin to be made public in the upcoming first quarterly report.

That report, however, is typically tabled in September — and could potentially be put on hold, depending on what date the October provincial election is called.

“What this budget is about is about is supporting people now, it’s about governing now, it’s not about the election,” Conroy said. “We will be coming forward with a platform in the fall in which we will show people what we are going to do in the coming years, but we have been pretty upfront about what we’re going to do.”

The questions come amid concerns about cost control on provincial government projects, from schools to roads to hospitals.

The new Surrey hospital was originally projected to cost a little over $1.7 billion — a figure that has since ballooned to more than $2.8 billion. The new Dawson Creek hospital, originally pegged at $378 million is now expected to come in at $590 million.

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Click to play video: 'Top 10 things you should know about in the 2024 B.C. Budget'
Top 10 things you should know about in the 2024 B.C. Budget

Hospitals in both Williams Lake and the Cowichan Valley have also seen budgets soar by more than 60 per cent each.

The cost escalations have drawn criticism from the business community.

“There is no private sector discipline and rigor in terms of how the projects are being procured and then moving forward,” said Chris Gardner, president of the Independent Contractors Business Association.

Conroy cited multiple factors affecting the cost of major projects in the province, ranging from supply chain issues to labour and skills training pressures to inflation.

Big projects are also subject to delays with permitting and approvals.

B.C.’s provincial budget forecasts a record-breaking $7.9 billion deficit that opposition leaders have decried as “reckless” and “bankrupting” as it lays out billions for new program spending and rebates aimed at the rising cost of living.

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B.C.’s next provincial election is scheduled for October 19, 2024.

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