Opposition critics will be taking aim at B.C.’s delayed budget, which might not be finalized until some time in May, as the the B.C. legislature begins its delayed spring session March 1 and heads into its second year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The latest finance ministry estimate is a record deficit of $13.6 billion for the current fiscal year that ends March 31. Finance Minister Selina Robinson has indicated that the next budget won’t be presented until April 20, which means the NDP government will need more interim spending authority to keep the province going.
Opposition leader Shirley Bond says the delays are more than just an accounting concern for a province with an annual operating budget of more than $50 billion and thousands of community agencies depending on it.
“We will be discussing [ministry spending] estimates until likely May, which creates ongoing uncertainty for organizations across this province who may not know what their funding allocations are,” Bond told Black Press Media.
In June of 2020, former finance minister Carole James passed legislation giving the province authority to run three years of deficits, and Robinson’s first budget in April will give a further indication of how much borrowing is still to come.
The B.C. Liberals expect to see new legislation starting March 1, and wonder about the lengthy wait for a budget that Bond said could have been delivered in February. The NDP government has struggled to deliver on Premier John Horgan’s election promise to send $1,000 COVID-19 support payments to almost every family, regardless of whether they lost income in the pandemic, and small business help has also stalled.
“The government is basically going to try to fill a calendar full of session days to try to get to a budget date that is probably the end of April,” Bond said. “My concern is that we as the opposition and the people of British Columbia have no idea how program spending has gone, what the deficit is ultimately going to look like, and how we’re going to begin to rebuild the economy.”
During a quick and mostly virtual post-election legislature sitting in December, Robinson got approval to borrow another $2 billion and released B.C.’s second quarter financial statement, also two months later than usual. The deficit did not go up by the entire $2 billion, thanks to stronger than expected income tax revenue and property transfer taxes, which continue to be a cash cow for the province as the urban real estate market continues to rise.
Retail sales actually recovered to a higher level in September 2020 than they were before the pandemic, thanks partly to federal and provincial income support payments that far exceeded the income actually lost in the first months of the pandemic.