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B.C. to table unprecedented budget amid COVID-19 financial pressures

Click to play video: 'Focus BC: 2021 Provincial budget preview, investing in the ‘care’ economy' Focus BC: 2021 Provincial budget preview, investing in the ‘care’ economy
In the April 16, 2021, edition of Focus BC, host Richard Zussman speaks with Anita Huberman of the Surrey Board of Trade and Iglika Ivanova of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives on what to expect in the provincial budget next week – Apr 16, 2021

British Columbia’s finance minister says her professional training as a family therapist helped her develop the New Democrat government’s first budget during the COVID-19 pandemic, which she will table Tuesday.

Selina Robinson said her skills as a good listener and relationship builder were valuable and necessary to help put together a budget during the ongoing period of pandemic upheaval.

Robinson released a fiscal update last December stating the pandemic’s impact on B.C.’s economy remained uncertain, but the budget deficit was projected at $13.6 billion.

Read more: B.C. increases income and disability assistance by $175 per month

The last budget, tabled in February 2020 just as B.C.’s first COVID-19 cases were being diagnosed, forecast three years of modest surpluses, including a surplus of $227 million for 2020-21.

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“What I can say is it is going to be a deficit budget,” Robinson said Saturday in an interview. “We’ve been very mindful about how to make decisions for British Columbians so that we can have a path forward that gets us through and over the next number of years back to balance. We’re committed to getting back to balance.”

Robinson, who has a master’s degree in counselling psychology, said she leaned on her experience working with families to prepare a budget that reflects the concerns and future wishes of B.C. residents during the pandemic era.

Click to play video: 'B.C. Premier John Horgan gets his COVID-19 jab' B.C. Premier John Horgan gets his COVID-19 jab
B.C. Premier John Horgan gets his COVID-19 jab – Apr 16, 2021

“I’m trained to look at dynamics between people and to build relationships,” Robinson said. “I have found that training has helped me considerably in my job. I’m also trained as a listener, which has also helped listening to British Columbians, to various groups, listening to my colleagues.”

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She said listening to business groups, social advocates and families has provided the over-arching focus of the budget, which aims to help the province get through the pandemic and look ahead to economic recovery.

“We don’t want to leave people behind,” Robinson said. “We want to make sure all children have enough food in their bellies. We want to make sure businesses can plan a future that allows them to grow their business. We want people to have health and safety in their communities.”

Read more: B.C. businesses now eligible for grant money to help transition to online sales

The former housing minister was appointed to the finance port folio last fall after the NDP’s October election win.

Robinson said she immediately realized the budget, delayed from its traditional February release, would have to face the challenge of the pandemic head on.

“I thought, ‘this has never been done before,”’ she said. “How do you build a budget where you’re still dealing with the pandemic and needing to take care of people, making sure their health and safety is a priority and start planning and building out for a recovery?”

Click to play video: 'Grocery prices in B.C. expected to keep climbing' Grocery prices in B.C. expected to keep climbing
Grocery prices in B.C. expected to keep climbing – Apr 15, 2021

The budget aims to take care of people during the pandemic while preparing for a post-COVID-19 recovery, Robinson said.

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“If we can hold tight, keep our circles down, get through the vaccination process quickly, then we can move into the recovery phase,” she said. “People need the services. They need the medical support. They need mental health support. They need to make sure they’ll get through this pandemic.”

The Opposition Liberals, who have criticized the NDP’s pandemic relief efforts as slow and unfocused, say the budget needs an economic recovery plan that includes commitments to major infrastructure projects such as the George Massey Tunnel replacement in Metro Vancouver.

Read more: B.C. pledges $50 million to support restaurants, gyms affected by latest COVID-19 orders

“This NDP government has delayed numerous vital infrastructure projects since coming into office, making it clear that despite what they may say, these projects have not been a priority, and it’s time for that to change,” Liberal transportation critic Michael Lee said in a statement.

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is also calling for more infrastructure spending on transit, education and housing, but says investments in mental health and care programs for children and the elderly are paramount.

Robinson said the budget aims to build strength in order to lay the groundwork for future recovery.

“There are absolutely numerous challenges in front of us and we’re making sure that we can support people, support businesses, support communities, so that we can all get to where we want to get,” she said. “Some might say that’s fantasy thinking, but it is why we all work together.”

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 18, 2021.

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