VICTORIA - British Columbia's minority New Democrat government says it is starting to build the province all residents want, tabling an updated budget that promises to hire 3,500 teachers and build thousands of rental units and homes for the homeless.
Finance Minister Carole James said Monday the government's first budget document puts people first after 16 years of Liberal rule where families, students and seniors struggled.
The budget update forecasts a surplus of $246 million this year and economic growth of 2.9 per cent, up from the 2.1 per cent projected in last February's budget.
The New Democrats formed a minority government last June after the May election did not produce a clear winner in the 87-seat legislature. The NDP, with 41 seats, and the Greens with three seats, combined their seat totals to oust the Liberals in a non-confidence vote.
"The budget really does invest in people to invest in B.C.," James said in a briefing prior to introducing the budget in the legislature.
"I am a big believer that a budget does not stand alone," she said. "A budget is a tool to make sure the people of this province who built our economy benefit from the economy."
She said she grew up in a household in Victoria where she was raised by grandparents who could never afford new furniture or appliances, but were the first to offer helping hands to those in need.
"Since I've been in this role, I've thought a lot about my grandparents, about how to stretch a dollar," James said.
The updated budget confirmed many of the NDP's spring election promises, but other major pledges appeared to be under review and considered works in progress.
James acknowledged the government's plan for a universal, $10-a-day child-care program and its promised $400 subsidy for renters are currently in planning stages and may be more fully addressed in the government's budget due in February.
"We will implement programs and services as we are able," she said. "You can't turn back the clock on 16 years overnight. That's not possible."
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives said investing in affordable housing and offering start-up funding for a poverty reduction strategy are welcome changes in direction from the Liberals, but delaying work on the child-care promises raises concerns.
"The question is how ambitious their plan is going to be," said economist Iglinka Ivanova. "I'm expecting to see a lot more in the budget in February."
James said the government will invest $681 million over three years to hire 3,500 teachers and provide more services for students.
A Supreme Court of Canada ruling last year ordered B.C. to reinstate classroom composition rights won the B.C. Teachers' Federation about 15 years ago.
The budget update contains immediate housing initiatives for renters and the homeless and housing will remain a major focus of February's budget.
She said the government will spend $208 million to build 1,700 affordable rental housing units and $291 million to build 2,000 modular housing units for homeless people.
"Putting people first is our government's priority, and we're working on a comprehensive strategy to improve housing affordability, close speculation loopholes and reduce tax fraud and money laundering in B.C. real estate," James said in her speech to the legislature. "And in this budget update, we're taking the first critical steps."
She said the government will cut Medical Services Premiums by 50 per cent in January and the government's promise to increase income and disability assistance by $100 a month are budgeted at $472 million.
James said the budget includes tax measures that lowers the corporate income tax rate for small business to two per cent from 2.5 per cent, but increases the general corporate tax rate from 11 per cent to 12 per cent.
The personal income tax rate will jump from 14.7 per cent to 16.8 per cent for those earning $150,000 and over.
Jock Finlayson, B.C. Business Council vice president, said the business community expected the tax changes as they were part of the NDP's election platform, but "this budget isn't going to create a lot of new investment."
He said the increase in personal income tax, coupled with federal government tax changes, could result in B.C. businesses not being able to attract top-job candidates.