Provincial Finance Minister Carole James says it “feels like a lifetime” since she tabled the 2020 provincial budget in February, just four months ago.
She observed the economy had already been slowing down, with “moderation” in economic growth across the globe, and so took that into account in building the budget.
“We made sure we had a strong, resilient economic foundation to be able to build from,” James said. “We certainly knew there were going to be challenges ahead, when it came to moderation, but I don’t think any of us could imagine the kind of situation that we’re all living through now.
“This is unlike any challenge that we’ve faced,” James said. “COVID-19 has impacted every sector, every family, every community, every part of our community.”
“When we’re talking about businesses being hit, that’s individuals and families as well, not only the business owners but in fact the employees.”
James noted that more than 300,000 jobs have been lost in British Columbia because of the pandemic.
She was the guest speaker in a Surrey Board of Trade “digital town hall” via Zoom. Monday’s topic was “COVID-19: Relief, Restart and Recovery for Surrey and B.C.”
The finance minister said while she knows people are “keen” to get back to work, “we need to do that in a very planned, and a very careful, and a very measured approach.”
“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves,” she said.
James said $1.5 billion of B.C.’s $5 billion COVID plan has been earmarked for economic recovery. “Once again, I think it’s critical to note that we did that from the start.”
“That’s one-time money,” she said. “We will be gathering the feedback, as we are doing now, through ministries meeting with their sectors, through the premiers table and through other areas. Individual business ideas have been coming forward as well. We’ll be making a determination around where those dollars can best be used.
James said while she “doesn’t want to pre-determine any processes,” she expects education will be “a big discussion” when it comes to how that money will be allocated.
“Do we look at further training, and skills training for the kinds of youth who are having to re-tool for new kinds of jobs, perhaps, or new industries?”
James said the government is tracking the impact the pandemic has had on particular sectors and age groups. For example, Stats Canada released employment-related figures last week, she noted, that show “the youth are particularly impacted, particularly facing challenges, 18 to 24-year-olds. And that’s no surprise when you look at the sectors that are most impacted – retail, restaurants, bars.”
On rent assistance for business owners, she said, last week the government brought in an emergency order to ensure that if a business is able to apply for the program and fit the criteria, but their landlord isn’t interested in applying, there will not be an eviction. “And that will stay in place as long as the federal program is in place and the emergency order’s in place.”
The provincial government also brought in a $1,000 emergency benefit for workers and in July it will “boost” the climate action tax credit. “We’re increasing that payment.”
“We’ve deferred everything from the employers health tax to the PST to the hotel tax, to the carbon tax,” James said. “We also cut property taxes. The school portion, which id the provincial portion of property taxes, we have cut by on the average about 20 per cent, which again gives that immediate relief.”
She said that while we have a “challenge” ahead, “I do feel optimistic about our recovery.”
James said the largest capital budget in B.C.’s history is contained in Budget 2020.
“So we have built in there the kind of infrastructure that also will assist as we look ahead, in to creating jobs. We have a large amount of infrastructure, for everything from hospitals to roads to bridges to transit, and that is in every corner of British Columbia, which will again provide us with a very good base to be able to provide that infrastructure spending and get those jobs going in British Columbia as well,” she said.
“We’re not leaving people behind.”