Free prescription contraception, increased funding for health care and a renters tax credit are some of the new promises unveiled in B.C.’s 2023 budget.
After coming off a 2022/23 financial year which starts on April 1 with an almost $6-billion surplus, the province is projecting a deficit for the next three fiscal years, but it comes with big promises, including putting dollars behind some previous high-profile commitments.
The projected deficit for 2023/24 is $4.2 billion. B.C. Finance Minister Katrine Conroy pointed to the global economy as an explanation for why there is such a difference in the current fiscal year’s projected surplus and the projected deficit for the upcoming years.
Rob Shaw: Five things to know about B.C.’s 2023 budget
“Global inflation is squeezing household budgets everywhere,” Conroy said. “The province can’t control global forces but we can make choices that help protect British Columbians and build a stronger, more secure future.”
Free contraception gets funding in 2023 budget
Free contraception is one promise the B.C. government previously made that is now coming to fruition.
The province is committing $119 million over three years for prescription contraception, which is says will cover most oral hormone pills, contraceptive injections, copper and hormonal intrauterine devices, subdermal implants and Plan B.
This will start April 1, 2023 with $39 million committed for 2023/24, $46 million for the next fiscal year, and $33 for the year after.
“When it comes to essentials, having full control over your reproductive rights is at the top of the list. Prescription birth control is a necessary health care, not a luxury,” Conroy said. “It’s a vital resource for equity and equality.”
Teale Phelps Bondaroff, chair of AccessBC, a group that advocates for free contraception in B.C., says he is excited to hear about this committment.
“This is the perfect policy, some of the concerns we had were around age limitations, there are none,” Phelps Bondaroff said. “They added Plan B, we didn’t even ask for Plan B, so we were so excited to see that the government is really considering the full range of contraceptives.”
Health care is also getting a financial boost, with the budget increasing by $3.2 billion for both health and mental health care.
“Mental health is health and we’re making the largest investment in mental health and addictions services in B.C. history,” Conroy said.
The budget for the 2023/24 fiscal year for the Ministry of Health is $28.7 billion, up from the $25.5 billion it spent in 2022/23. Over the next three years, that is projected to grow to $30.7 billion in 2025/26.
Usman Mushtaq, coordinator with the BC Health Coalition, says it is positive to see the government increasing investment in health care, but the government needs to expand its scope.
“For example, there’s $1.1 billion for a new payment model for family doctors, but primary care in B.C. extends beyond family doctors, we need a team around family doctors to support them,” Mushtaq said. “Investing in family doctors is one piece of that primary care issue and it’s really a band-aid solution that is not going to address the root cause of the issue.”
The government is also spending almost $200 million in the next fiscal year on mental health and addictions treatment, which will create new beds and expand the Red Fish Healing Centre model from Coquitlam to the rest of the province. But it won’t eliminate existing fees on treatment beds, an oversight the CEO of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s B.C. branch said could create a two-tiered system.
Included in the health-care budget are plans over the next three years to create over 1,700 new health care positions, nearly 3,000 new post-secondary health training seats, and over 190 new addiction treatment beds.
Big money for care facility projects on Vancouver Island
Two new health-care projects for Vancouver Island were announced in the budget.
The first project is the Western Communities Long-Term Care project which will cost $224 million to build a 306-bed long-term care home in Royal Bay in Colwood with hospice, a specialized unit for younger people with brain injuries, and an adult day program.
Construction on the project is expected to start in 2025, with completion set for 2027.
The second project is redeveloping the Nanaimo Regional General Hospital ICU/HAU.
This is expected to be complete in 2024, with a budget of $60 million.
Long-promised renters rebate arrives, but with conditions
The government is also rolling out its long-promised renters rebate, but the program will look much different than what was initially promised.
The original promise called for a $400 renters rebate, but the program the province is rolling out is an income-tested renters tax credit of up to $400 starting in 2024.
Households earning less than $60,000 will qualify for the full $400 tax credit, and households earning up to $80,000 will get a partial credit.
Robert Patterson, lawyer and tenant advocate for the Tenant Resource and Advisory Centre, says the renters tax credit comes with requirements that homeowners don’t have to meet for a similar credit.
“It’s good to see the government following through on the promise to renters to help people deal with their rent,” Patterson said.
“Two things we want to keep in mind on this. First, this is meant to be akin to the homebuyers grant that helps people pay their property taxes, that grant is not income tested, this credit is. There’s an interesting discrepancy there in who and how we’re choosing to subsidize.”
“The second thing to keep in mind is there’s a risk that the market can very quickly eat that credit up. Suddenly if you know every renter has an extra $400 a year in rent, rents will just go up to accommodate that.”
Patterson says the province should also implement measures to protect renters between tenancies to prevent landlords from increasing rents to eat up the new tax credit.
The province has $1.15 billion set aside for measures aimed at helping with affordability issues – with the contraception and renter’s tax credit included in this number.
Food programs for students, increased support for families
Also included in this are K-12 school food programs, increased supports for income and disability assistance, student financial aid allowance increases, increased financial supports for foster families, increase in the Climate Action Tax Credit starting in July 2023, and BC Family Benefit increases.
The province is increasing funding for K-12 school food programs because it estimates 17 per cent of B.C. families with children under 18 experience food insecurity.
“We can make sure that no child has to learn on an empty stomach,” Conroy said.
The school food programs are administered by the districts, so each school district will have a slightly different program, ranging from providing snacks to meals to students.
The province provides the funding to the districts, earmarked for the food program, and each district gets funding distributed based on enrolment numbers.
Law enforcement gets hiring boost as repeat offender program announced
The budget also comes with funding to fulfill Premier David Eby’s promise to address safety concerns in the province, including $230 million to hire 256 RCMP officers in communities serviced by the RCMP, $25 million for consultation and engagement on new policing and police oversight legislation, $13.5 million over three years for the BC Human Rights Tribunal, $16 million for virtual and after-hours bail hearings, and $2 million per year for the Independent Investigations Office.
Additionally, the province is investing $87 million to create two new programs: the Repeat Violent Offending Intervention Initiative and the Special Investigation and Targeted Enforcement.
The two programs have $87 million allocated across the three upcoming fiscal years, with $33 million for the 2023/24 year.
Anyone looking to the budget for details on the province’s housing plan under the new premier will have to wait a little longer. While there is $1.9 billion set aside for housing in the upcoming fiscal year, Conroy said the detailed housing plan will be rolled out later.
“When [Housing] Minsister [Ravi] Kahlon comes out with his housing plan in the coming weeks, he’ll come up with the exact numbers,” Conroy said. “But we know we need to do more with the housing plan and that’s exactly what this budget is going to do.”
Opposition leader says budget falls flat
BC Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon says while he applauds the government for implementing free contraception, he thinks the rest of the budget does not live up to expectation.
“The rest of the budget, I’ll be honest, is a massive disappointment,” Falcon said.
“And I really want to frame it to British Columbians this way: this government in their sixth year have almost doubled the debt to $100 billion in the current financial plan, there’s going to be projected deficits of $11 billion over the next three years.”
He also said that initiatives to help the economy are missing from the budget.
“There’s nothing in this budget that talks about growing the economy, about doing things that are going to actually see more revenues generated for government,” Falcon said.
“There’s nothing in here for small business in particular, nothing for the Chinatown merchants that are seeing their windows smashed, graffiti virtually on a daily basis, and by the way, that’s the experience of small businesses right across the province. Nothing in there for any of them, and I think that’s a huge missed opportunity.”
-With files from CHEK’s Rob Shaw