VICTORIA — The Liberal government’s new budget tries to put the squeeze on British Columbia’s Opposition New Democrats, just weeks before the start of a spring election campaign, say political experts.
The campaign-style budget delivers several blows to the NDP by erasing much of the available surplus, cutting medical service premiums in half and increasing spending on health, education and children’s issues, said Hamish Telford, a political science professor at the University of the Fraser Valley.
The budget presented on Tuesday also leaves little room for the New Democrats to fund their big-ticket promises of $10-a-day childcare and $15-per-hour minimum wage without considering raising taxes or running deficits, he said.
“In the first instance it really tries to kneecap the NDP in terms of major policy planks the NDP might want to pursue,” Telford said.
The focus on boosting spending for education, health and child-welfare initiatives leaves the New Democrats on the outside on issues consistently on their agenda.
“The finance minister has been saying nine other provincial finance ministers would love to give this budget, and my initial thought was the NDP would love to give this budget,” Telford said.
Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the 2017-2018 budget — the fifth consecutive balanced budget — is the envy of most provinces who are struggling with deficits and can only dream about spending surplus cash.
The $50.2-billion budget is forecast to have a surplus of $295 million.
The MSP generates about $2.5 billion in annual revenues for the government. The cut, effective Jan. 1, 2018, reduces that amount by about $1 billion.
The New Democrats have long called for the elimination or revamping of the MSP, and increased social spending is one of their core values.
But Carole James, the NDP’s finance critic, said she rejects suggestions the Liberals have tried to outflank the Opposition with the budget.
“We’ll take a look at the numbers,” she said. “We’ll take a look at what options there are and we’ll make choices. We’ll make different choices than this government has done. What the public is looking for is a government that is in their corner.”
Premier Christy Clark said the New Democrat’s plan for Quebec-style $10-a-day daycare would mean tax increases because $10 does not cover the cost of a provincially-run system.
“The less government takes from you, the more affordable your life will be,” she said.
Michael Prince, a social policy expert at the University of Victoria, said the Liberals are trying to force the NDP to support tax increases and deficits, but the budget leaves opportunities for the New Democrats to make a plan.
“From a political election strategy, I’m not sure if (the MSP cut) is the most effective stroke of genius because it doesn’t take effect until next January,” he said.
Prince said the government has left itself more than $1 billion in breathing room because the budget includes an extra $750 million contingency and forecast-allowance funds, and a projected $295 million surplus.
“There’s room to move,” he said.
Prince said the Liberals have accumulated a compassion deficit for their years of penny pinching on social issues, and funding increases shortly before an election comes across as a half-hearted attempt to address a weakness.
“Part of the compassion and social justice deficit is there wasn’t any sense of a plan or vision beyond just, ‘Here’s some additions to certain budgets,'” he said. “The social policy side is still their Achilles heel.”
— With files from Laura Kane in Vancouver
The Canadian Press
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