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Economy

B.C. should include more wildfire prevention, review of tax system in next budget: committee

Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito.
Finance Minister Carole James arrives to deliver the budget speech as she waves to people in the gallery at the legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Tuesday, February 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chad Hipolito

A committee of seven MLAs from the NDP and Liberal caucuses is recommending the provincial government increase investment for local communities preparing for wildfires, floods and earthquakes in its next budget.

The committee presented a final report to Finance Minister Carole James on Wednesday.

“Committee Members highlight a need for investments in prevention, adaptation, response and recovery from these disasters, as well as a need for earthquake awareness and preparedness,” the report reads.

“Many British Columbians and local communities are taking action to ensure they are doing their part to prevent, mitigate, prepare for and respond to disasters. Continued provincial investment, leadership and collaboration is needed to support these efforts.”

READ MORE: More money in B.C. budget for wildfire response as natural disaster costs soar

The committee held 15 public hearings across the province ahead of its report.

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The NDP government has no responsibility to put any of the recommendations in place for its next budget, which is scheduled to be tabled in February.

The province has been criticized for a lack of funding for wildfire prevention. Budget 2018 included a wildfire response funding increase from $64 million to $101 million per year “in recognition of increased wildfire activity.”

WATCH (Aired August 21, 2019): What will happen to B.C.’s budget if we keep fighting wildfires?

What will happen to B.C.’s budget if we keep fighting wildfires?
What will happen to B.C.’s budget if we keep fighting wildfires?

British Columbia declared provincial states of emergency in 2017 and 2018 because of wildfires. The cost of the fires totaled well over a billion dollars.

In July, the province released updated financial numbers. Finance Minister Carole James unveiled the province’s public accounts presenting a larger-than expected $1.5-billion surplus.

The surplus was built on higher-than-expected economic growth, household growth and income tax returns.

READ MORE: NDP government paints rosy economic picture as public accounts show $1.5B surplus

The committee is also recommending a “comprehensive review” of the province’s entire taxation system. The key recommendation is the province needs to “modernize the structure.”

“[Members] discussed the importance of ensuring taxes are effective in accomplishing stated outcomes, addressing unintended or unanticipated impacts, and ensuring fairness and consistency,” reads the report.

“They observed that taxes also should be reviewed through a lens of maintaining competitiveness, with a particular examination of cumulative impacts, as well as modernization in recognition of changing economies.”

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READ MORE: Concerns growing from small businesses over the Employer Health Tax

During the course of the public consultation, the committee also heard complaints about the province’s Employers Health Tax. Some businesses are now being required to pay the tax, with the money going towards funding the elimination of MSP premiums.

“Restaurants Canada and the Fort Nelson & District Chamber of Commerce reported that the tax has added significant costs, and employers are responding by laying off staff, cutting hours or curtailing hiring, eliminating or cutting benefits, and increasing prices,” the report reads.

“Suggestions for addressing these issues included increasing and indexing the thresholds, providing exemptions for specific groups of employees (e.g.
youth) and types of organizations (e.g. not-for-profit organizations), and reviewing and redesigning the tax.”

Other recommendations

Improving drinking water: Committee recommending the province provides better financial support to community-based organizations across the province do protect drinking water supply.

Species-at-risk protection: Recommending the province create and fund species-at-risk legislation to protect and recover species in consultation with communities, Indigenous peoples and the business sector.

International student tuition: Suggesting a review of the funding formula to address funding challenges and barriers and inequities with access to post-secondary education, pointing specifically to issues with ever-increasing international student tuition fee.

Legal aid funding: As the province continues to work on a long term legal aid deal, the committee is recommending increasing funding for legal aid and restorative justice practices. The Committee also recommending addressing barriers and limitations to access to legal aid for those experiencing intimate-partner or gender-based violence.

HandyDART access: On the Transportation front, the committee is recommending increasing and expanding HandyDART services in the province.

Electric bicycles: The committee wants to scrap the PST on electric bicycles to encourage more purchases.

—With files from Simon Little and Shelby Thom

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