B.C. budget sets aside nearly $6 billion for COVID support, forecasts $8.1-billion deficit

Click to play video: 'B.C. Government unveils 2021 budget'
B.C. Government unveils 2021 budget
B.C. Finance Minister Selina Robinson has rolled out the government's 2021 budget, with a significant focus on post-pandemic recovery spending. Richard Zussman has the details – Apr 20, 2021

The B.C. government on Tuesday set aside nearly $6 billion in new spending to address the COVID-19 pandemic in its first budget since the fall election.

But it’s not immediately increasing circuit-breaker funding for the hard-hit hospitality sector, following an extension of bans on in-restaurant dining and social gatherings through the May long weekend.

The new cash includes nearly $2.5 billion in ongoing support for small and medium-sized businesses and support for the health-care system.

The province is also allocating $3.25 billion in pandemic contingency funding that could be used to help sectors such as hospitality and tourism based on virus transmission rates over the next few weeks.

Click to play video: 'Highlights from the 2021 B.C. budget'
Highlights from the 2021 B.C. budget

Read more: COVID: Sweeping new restrictions in place including in-person dining at B.C. bars and restaurants

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As for British Columbia’s overall economic picture, it’s rosier than expected.

“The pandemic will end. And when it does, B.C. will be ready for the opportunities that come with recovery,” Finance Minister Selina Robinson said.

Budget 2021 includes an updated forecast deficit of $8.1 billion for 2020-21, down from the fall 2020 projection of $13.6 billion.

The stronger economic footing is based on higher-than-expected revenues, including tax revenue as a result of strong housing and retail sales, and moderately lower spending.

“The fact that our forecast has shifted so much from only four months ago is a reminder that we are still in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, which continues to make it rather difficult to predict how things will develop in the future,” Robinson said.

“We need to remember we are still in the pandemic. That is why we have put in to this year’s pandemic substantial contingencies.”

Looking forward, the province is forecasting a $9.7-billion deficit for 2021-22, following by $5.5 billion in 2022-23, then dropping to $4.3 billion in 2023-24.

Click to play video: '$16 million funding for B.C.’s struggling arts and culture industry'
$16 million funding for B.C.’s struggling arts and culture industry

The Greater Vancouver Board of Trade is giving the province a B grade on economic recovery, saying B.C.’s economy has performed relatively well compared to other provinces.

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But the organization is flagging that the unemployment rate remains substantially higher at 6.9 per cent, is higher specifically in Greater Vancouver, and that there were no measures announced in response to the new public health orders announced this week.

“We are still striving for a post-pandemic vision for the economy that attracts investment, creates good jobs and promotes opportunity. It’s not clear this budget puts B.C. on the fast track to thrive in an increasingly competitive world,” CEO Bridgitte Anderson said.

Click to play video: 'Hard-hit businesses call for extended wage, rent subsidy programs'
Hard-hit businesses call for extended wage, rent subsidy programs

The tourism sector will be receiving a $120-million boost, which includes $100 million to support major anchor attractions, though it has not listed the attractions.

On the pandemic health-care front, new spending includes $900 million for COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, personal protective equipment and the vaccine rollout.

Health-care spending overall is climbing by $2.6 billion over the next three years, then up to $25.4 billion by 2023-2024, with $500 million earmarked for mental health and substance use — what the NDP billed as the largest mental health funding increase in B.C. history.

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Income and disability assistance payments for about 240,000 people will climb by $175 per month, while the senior’s supplement that benefits low-income seniors is rising by $50 per person per month.

Read more: B.C. boosts welfare rates, makes transit free for kids in 2021 budget

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Seventy-five new child-care centres and 3,800 new spaces were planned as part of the BC NDP’s $10-a-day promise, though Robinson did not give a target date.

“Once we dig into the federal commitments and we have a better understanding of what that looks like over the coming years, we will have a better sense of how quickly we will be able to deliver on that,” she said.

The Trudeau government has proposed up to $30 billion over the next five years to create a nationwide child-care system that it promises will bring fees down to an average of $10 per day in regulated centres by 2025-26.

Read more: Federal budget delivers big promises on childcare, tamer housing measures

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The B.C. government has committed to filing the gaps of a federal sick day program, but now seems to be relying solely on Ottawa.

The government did not provide any dollar figures for the Massey Tunnel replacement but says the resources are there and will be going through due diligence to figure out how much it will cost. The province has not determine what sort of project will be used to replace the aging span.

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The government is planning on reopening casinos in June, but that could be delayed if COVID-19 transmission continues to be high.

“It is the health and safety that is foremost. If they can open safely in June then they will open. If they can’t open then they won’t,” Robinson said.

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