February 15, 2016 - 9:00 PM
VICTORIA - British Columbia's Liberal government is set to deliver a fourth consecutive balanced budget Tuesday with sprinkles of relief expected for first-time home buyers trying to get into a red hot real estate market.
Tweaks were also signalled on medical services premiums and more cash promised for social service programs in a throne speech last week that said the government will "resist the temptation to spend our way into trouble."
Premier Christy Clark said the budget targets affordability on several fronts, but the measures will be incremental.
"The budget, what you'll see, is relief across the board for people in all different sectors," she told reporters last week in Vancouver.
Clark said the government has already moved to help single-parent families with cuts to their medical premiums, but a massive overhaul or elimination of the program — called for by the Opposition New Democrats and the Green party — is not in the cards, yet.
"It's antiquated, it's old, and the way people pay for it generally doesn't make a whole ton of sense," Clark said. "I think in terms of wholesale change though, it's going to take a little longer for us to work through some of that, but you will see some things in this budget."
B.C.'s next provincial election is set for May 2017.
NDP finance critic Carole James said the medical premiums are an unfair tax that results in people earning $30,000 annually or more paying the same rates as those who earn $1 million.
"We have to get rid of this unfair tax," she said.
James said B.C. families are being squeezed with fee and rate increases, including hydro, insurance, tuition and medical premium rates.
"The piece I'll be looking for in the budget is the issue of affordability for families," she said. "If you take a look at how difficult it is for people right now, and the fees and services and increased taxes this government has put on families, it is getting tougher and tougher."
B.C. Hydro rates jumped four per cent last month and the Canadian Taxpayers Federation says B.C.'s medical premium rates have increased 39 per cent since 2009, from $108 a month for a family with children to $150 per month now.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the medical premium payments, which collect more than $2 billion annually, account for about 14 per cent of B.C.'s health budget of almost $19 billion.
He said the government is looking at being more flexible with medical premiums but he rejects calls to make the payments part of the income tax system.
"I disagree with that," he said. "All you are doing is creating the illusion health care is free, and it's not."
De Jong said the major achievement of his latest budget remains the fact it will be balanced, an accomplishment most provinces and the federal government won't realize this year.
The Royal Bank forecasts B.C.'s economy to lead Canada's growth rate this year at 3.1 per cent and 2.9 per cent in 2017. The B.C. government has forecast growth at 2.4 per cent this year.
Last fall, de Jong forecast the budget to include a surplus of $265 million, down about $20 million from the original estimate due largely to falling resource revenues, particularly natural gas.
News from © The Canadian Press, 2016