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‘Steady as she goes’: B.C. budget has little to hate, but few new policies to love

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“It’s a little like a wedding,” said Finance Minister Carole James to the media on Tuesday, as she began introducing the details of the NDP government’s second full budget.

She was referring to the logistics of the day, but it could have easily applied to the mood itself: celebrating what had already been announced, while offering warm generalities about the future with few major details.

To be sure, B.C.’s 2019 budget — another year with projected surpluses, another year of the province leading Canada in economic growth — was hard for any non-partisan to completely hate. There were even some new policies that will excite a few groups.

But after the breakneck speed of announcements in its first 18 months in power, the NDP presented a budget that shows the government settling into its role — content with the path it has charted out for the foreseeable future.  

“We have a balanced budget across the fiscal track,” James said. “We’re the only province with a AAA credit rating. But we will never have a truly prosperous province unless everybody can share in that prosperity.”

Tuesday’s budget continues that philosophy of sharing.

Still, there was a reason the first eight minutes of her speech to the legislature had four references to the 2018 budget, and just one for the 2019 budget: this was a budget that built on its foundation instead of promising dramatic changes for the future.  

B.C.’s 2019 budget stayed the course established in previous years but still had a few surprises. (Liam Britten/CBC)

Targeted programs this time around

In 2018, the big budget announcements — the elimination of Medical Services Plan (MSP) premiums in favour of a payroll tax, and the 30-point housing plan — affected virtually everyone in the province. Tuesday’s big announcements were more targeted towards specific segments of the population.

Take the B.C. Child Opportunity Benefit: James trumpeted the fact a family earning up to $25,000 annually with one child will receive $1,600 a year under the new program.

But the province couldn’t say how many families were under that $25,000 threshold; and since the amount families receive goes down as their income rises — and 40 per cent of families aren’t eligible because they’re over the maximum threshold — the average amount each family will receive from the program will be considerably less.

What about how this budget eliminates the interest on the provincial portion student loans?

A big help, but on average, around 60 per cent of money in student loans comes from the federal government, and interest on that portion of the loan will continue to grow for graduates. To say nothing of overall tuition and student housing costs that helped cause them to apply for student loans in the first place.

The $100 million a year from gaming revenue that will go directly to First Nations communities? It means there’s a stable long-term funding source, but it doesn’t necessarily mean $100 million more will flow to these communities annually. Traditionally, government provided money to First Nations through a hodgepodge of other programs; now there’s a clear mechanism in place.

And so it goes.

Most people won’t see big changes. But the announcements in this budget further the government’s pledge to ensure British Columbia’s strong economic performance benefits everyone — albeit in very targeted ways.        

“It’s not historic, it’s not a fundamentally dramatic change, but there are systemic changes as part of a slow overhauling of our tax system,” said Paul Kershaw, a public policy professor at the University of British Columbia.

B.C.’s budget for next year projects a surplus, but it’s also predicated on money gained through the property transfer tax staying steady, instead of decreasing as it did over the previous 12 months. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

Few strong feelings

Even for business groups less predisposed to support this government, the general reaction was fairly measured.   

“Steady as she goes,” said Iain Black, CEO of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. While he was concerned about long-term economic competitiveness because of last year’s tax changes, Black said he would give the budget a grade of B minus overall.

Which for most students, is the academic equivalent of a shrug.

But partisans and progressives who might have given this government an A if there were more big funding announcements might have been disappointed on certain things: the lack of details on the poverty plan, no long-promised $400 renters’ rebate, or little new money for money laundering enforcement, for example.

And possible storm clouds are looming on the horizon, in the form of a housing market slowing down, and a forecasted deficit of $50 million for ICBC, which officials admit is purely based on behavioural modelling once new reforms come in.  

Problems many governments would be thankful to have — but one the government would do well to watch, after it finishes congratulating itself on the promises it has implemented in the last 18 months.  

“I think the best way to characterize this budget is it rests on the laurels of 2018’s budget,” said Kershaw. “And has uncertainty going forward.”

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‘Too soon to celebrate’ Ottawa’s low case count, says Etches

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Ottawa Public Health (OPH) logged just 11 new cases of COVID-19 on Tuesday, the lowest daily total since Sept. 1.

Because of the lag between testing and reporting, the low number could simply reflect low turnout at the city’s testing sites on weekends — all month, new case counts have been lower on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. 

During a virtual news conference Tuesday, the city’s medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches said she doesn’t read too much into a single day’s report.

“I don’t think we can make too much of 11. Actually, it could be a lot higher tomorrow — I would expect that, on average,” she said. “It’s too soon to celebrate.”

Provincewide, public health officials reported 1, 249 new cases Tuesday.

OPH also declared 62 cases resolved Tuesday, lowering the number of known active cases in the city to 462. Two more people have died, both in care homes currently experiencing outbreaks, raising the city’s COVID-19 death toll to 361. 

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Santa Claus isn’t coming to Ottawa’s major malls this year

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Santa Claus may still be coming to town this Christmas, but he won’t be dropping by any of Ottawa’s major malls, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Friday, Cadillac Fairview said Santa won’t be making an appearance at any of its 19 malls across Canada, including Rideau Centre in downtown Ottawa. On Tuesday, Bayshore and St. Laurent shopping centres confirmed they, too, are scrapping the annual tradition.

“Due to the evolution of the situation in regards to COVID-19, we have made the difficult decision to cancel our Santa Program and Gift Wrap Program this year,” Bayshore spokesperson Sara Macdonald wrote in an email to CBC.

Macdonald said parent company Ivanhoé Cambridge cancelled all holiday activities “due to the rising number of COVID-19 cases across the country.”

Macdonald said families that had already booked an appointment to visit Santa will receive an email with more information.  

Virtual visits with Santa

Rideau Centre said based on customer research and discussions with public health officials, its North Pole is going online this year.

“Children will be able to have a private chat with Santa,” said Craig Flannagan, vice-president of marketing for Cadillac Fairview. “You’ll also be able to join a 15-minute storytime with Santa over Facebook Live.” 

At Place d’Orléans Shopping Centre, visitors are invited to take a “selfie with Santa” — actually, a life-size cutout of Santa Pierre, the man who’s been playing Santa at the east end mall for years.

“We understand that this is not ideal, but in lieu of this tradition we will be doing what we can to maintain and encourage holiday cheer,” according to a statement on the mall’s Facebook page.

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Ottawa Bylaw breaks up two large parties in Ottawa over the weekend

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OTTAWA — Ottawa Bylaw is investigating social gatherings of more than 10 people in private homes across Ottawa last weekend.

Mayor Jim Watson tells Newstalk 580 CFRA that Ottawa Bylaw broke-up two house parties over the weekend, with 20 to 25 people at each party.

“That’s the kind of stupidity that angers me, that’s where the bulk of the transmissions are taking place, if we exclude the tragedy of the long-term care homes; it’s these house parties with unrelated people,” said Watson on Newstalk 580 CFRA’s Ottawa at Work with Leslie Roberts.

“The message doesn’t seem to be getting through, particularly to some young people who think they’re invincible.”

In a statement to CTV News Ottawa, Bylaw and Regulatory Services Director Roger Chapman says, “There are still ongoing investigations from this past weekend that could result in charges.”

Chapman says recent investigations led to two charges being issued for social gatherings of more than 10 people in a private residence in contravention of the Reopening Ontario Act.

“In one case, up to 30 individuals were observed attending a house party in Ward 18 on Oct. 24,” said Chapman.

“The second charge was issued following a house party in Ward 16 on Oct. 31, where up to 16 individuals were observed to be in attendance.”

The fine is $880 for hosting an illegal gathering.

Alta Vista is Ward 18, while Ward 16 is River Ward.

Ottawa Bylaw has issued 24 charges for illegal gatherings since the start of the pandemic.

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