Baldrey: B.C. budget reflects Liberals’ zeal for balancing the books at all costs

B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jong shakes hands with Premier Christy Clark after delivering a balanced budget speech for a fourth year in a row at Legislative Assembly, in Victoria on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016.
B.C. Finance Minister Michael de Jong shakes hands with Premier Christy Clark after delivering a balanced budget speech for a fourth year in a row at Legislative Assembly, in Victoria on Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

To understand what drives the B.C. Liberal government more than anything, look no further than the budget it tabled last week.

I’m not referring to any particular service or program, or tax or tax break. No, the B.C. Liberals’ priority is zeroed in on one particular line in the budget.

That would be the bottom line, also known as the projected budget surplus. Everything else comes a distant second to the paramount importance the government attaches to balancing its books.

All spending and tax measures flow directly from the zeal with which the B.C. Liberals attach to achieving a balanced budget. The government continues to bet that the voting public backs its fiscal discipline over any kind of spending spree of tax dollars.

This conservative approach does little for those on the margins of society. To take just one example, social assistance rates continue to be frozen, as they have been for years now.

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Another example was contained in this year’s budget. The government is providing a modest $72 monthly increase for those on disability assistance, but at the same time it is “clawing back” a monthly bus pass worth $52, so the net rate increase is in reality rather tiny.

This clumsy maneuver is ham-fisted at best, and mean-spirited at worst. It has overshadowed other budget measures — in particular, significant funding increases for services affecting children and youth in government care — for which the government deserves a bit of a pat on the back.

Given that governments of all stripes don’t attach a lot of importance to helping out those who need help the most, I suspect the B.C. Liberals aren’t laying awake at night, worried about a public backlash over the bus pass.

I suppose it is possible the government may ultimately reverse course and re-instate that bus pass. After all, former premier Gordon Campbell’s administration did something similar with a seniors’ bus pass early on in its first mandate.

Online petition seeks to bring back $45 yearly bus pass for people with disabilities

However, the government is digging in its heels on another part of the budget that plays a big role in ensuring it is balanced: those pesky Medical Service Premiums, and this stubbornness may prove to be more politically problematic.

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While the budget made the rate structure a teeny bit fairer (the income threshold at which the full premiums take effect has been raised), the fact remains MSP premiums remain a regressive form of taxation that has become a significant financial dent felt every month for hundreds of thousands of people.

What’s curious about this is that the MSP changes will adversely affect many of those who presumably voted for the B.C. Liberals over the past few elections: seniors and those with higher than average incomes.

Premier Christy Clark has hinted more changes are in store for MSP in next spring’s budget, but a further increase to the full-pay income threshold seems the only option available, which would further ding the wallets of the B.C. Liberals’ voter base.

READ MORE: Four facts from the provincial budget you might not know about

The B.C. Liberals have turned the MSP into a kind of voracious tax-gobbling monster. It now brings in more than $2.5 billion in revenue, and will start nearing $3 billion a few years from now if left unchecked.

This amount of revenue is very difficult for a balance-the-books-at-all-costs government to turn its back on, particularly other kinds of revenue —  some kinds of taxation, as well as natural resource revenues — are flat-lining or declining.

All of this presents an interesting choice for the NDP come the next provincial election.

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Will the party abandon the balanced budget approach in favour of higher spending and cutting things like the MSP?

Given the federal Liberals’ success with that position in the fall election, this must be seen as a tempting option for B.C. New Democrats, many of whom appear upset that federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair stuck to his balanced budget pledge, only to watch his campaign go down in flames.

Abandoning the balanced budget pledge could be a game-changer in the next B.C. election. There’s no doubt it would be a risky move, but there’s no question it would also allow the NDP to neatly contrast itself to the penny-pinching party in power.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC

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