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Keith Baldrey: The budding bromance between B.C. and Ottawa may require cash

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference with Premier of British Columbia John Horgan following their meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 25, 2017.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau holds a press conference with Premier of British Columbia John Horgan following their meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, July 25, 2017. Sean Kilpatrick/CP

The federal government had a fairly large presence in B.C. last week, and no doubt Premier John Horgan hopes he sees many more visits from his federal counterparts, especially if they bring with them large bags of cash.

That’s something Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale did during a visit to Surrey, where he announced more than $325 million in new funding (over five years) to fight gangs and guns. It’s unclear yet what B.C.’s share will be, but it will likely exceed well more than $40 million over that time period.

B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth lauded the announcement as good news. I’m sure he meant it – after all, his ministry is due for a $200 million budget cut next spring, according to the NDP’s fiscal plan contained in the budget “update” tabled in September.

Before Goodale dropped by, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Vancouver and spent more than 30 minutes meeting with the B.C. premier. By all accounts, it was yet another positive encounter between these two leaders and another sign that this budding bromance is genuine.

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Even they stand on opposite sides on at least one major issue – the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which they seem to deliberately avoid discussing – the two seem to get along swimmingly (the prime minister, in talking to reporters, kept referring to Horgan as “John” and not the more formal “premier”).

And as the months go by, it will be critical for Horgan to keep up that good relationship if he wants to deliver on some key campaign promises. Simply put, B.C. needs Ottawa’s money – lots and lots of it.

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Some of those campaign promises are very expensive, and coupled with a self-inflicted hit on government revenues and expensive and ongoing ICBC financial woes, it means without federal financial aid they are unlikely to be met.

For example, the costly $10-a-day-daycare pledge could cost a whopping $1.5 billion, according to a report by the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. The NDP will likely argue a big chunk of those costs will be offset by parents returning to the workforce in greater numbers and therefore generating economic activity, but it’s a big hit to government coffers none the less.

The daycare plan will be phased in over a number of years – the fine print is still very sketchy – but eventually Horgan will have to go to Trudeau with cap in hand, looking for some big dollars.

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The B.C. premier is also likely looking for unspecified help from Ottawa to deal with the ongoing housing crisis in the Lower Mainland that has now spread to the provincial capital. Solving this crisis was another big arrow in the NDP’s campaign quiver that focused on making life more affordable for everyone, and the Trudeau government will be expected to contribute in some fashion.

Then there is transportation and transit. Building a subway line along Broadway in Vancouver will need the federal government to partner in that multi-billion dollar project, and no doubt the feds will be tapped for money for the Surrey light rail expansion if it happens.

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What makes extracting money from the Trudeau government a crucial task is the NDP’s decision to cut Medical Service Premiums by 50 per cent and to eventually get rid of them altogether.

That reduction will eliminate about $1 billion in revenue next year alone, and ICBC continues to pile up huge and growing annual losses, creating quite a challenge to Finance Minister Carole James to deliver a balanced budget that shows progress is being made to deliver on the issues that put her party in power.

James’ September budget update projects a tiny surplus of just $228 million next year, and that’s without any new significant spending on child care (or on much else new programs and services, as health care continues to consume spending dollars with a never-ending voracious appetite).

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She and her premier better hope those federal ministers – and the prime minister – keep dropping by with those bags of cash in the months ahead. If they don’t, meeting some pretty high expectations that the NDP have set for themselves will be all but impossible to meet.

Keith Baldrey is chief political reporter for Global BC. This is reprinted from his weekly column with Glacier Media.

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