On a day when hundreds of people and a large convoy of logging trucks gathered in front of the B.C. Legislature to raise awareness about the importance of forestry in B.C., the provincial NDP government delivered a budget that Cariboo North MLA Coralee Oakes says, at first glance, doesn’t offer a lot to support the forestry workers, contractors and small businesses affected by the forestry downturn.
“Today started, and we have a significant rally on the front steps of the Legislature supporting the forestry sector and the men and women who work in it,” Oakes said, calling from Victoria Tuesday, Feb. 18 following the 2020 provincial budget presentation. “You’ve got speakers, the front road of the Legislature has logging trucks, very similar to the rally that happened in the fall in Prince George, and it’s sending a really clear message that families have been significantly impacted by what we’ve seen in the forest sector, and they are looking for support. I think that’s the message I heard loud and clear during the rally, and it’s the message I’ve certainly heard in our forest-dependent communities, communities like Cariboo North, that they were hopeful that in this budget from the NDP government, we would see some relief for communities really impacted by the forestry crisis and the economic downturn that we’re seeing.”
The budget contains a new $13 million fund for “economic development and revitalization” of the B.C. forest sector, which Finance Minister Carole James described as financing Forest Minister Doug Donaldson’s changes to wood waste utilization, and Premier John Horgan’s initiative to bring industry players together for better use of a diminished Crown timber supply.
The budget for forests ministry operations for the fiscal year beginning April 1 is $844 million, up from $814 million. Provincial revenue from forest products is projected to go from $991 million this year to $867 in 2020-21.
“We’ve already started the hard work, but it still has to be done, and that means engaging everyone, including the people who are doing the awareness rally today,” James said, referring to forest workers gathered outside.
James referenced relief programs funded out of the current budget, which runs until March 31. They include a $40 million program over two years for retirement bridging of laid-off workers who are 55 or older. There are retraining programs for younger workers, and assistance offices have been set up in communities dealing with mill closures, including Clearwater, Fort St. James and Mackenzie.
Oakes says last year, when the provincial government moved $25 million out of the Rural Economic Development Fund to help communities like ours to diversify their economics, the government said they would be reinstating that fund at a future time, and at first glance in the budget, she can’t find where that money has been reinstated.
“That’s critically important for our communities,” she said. “We were also hoping for some types of support for small businesses. I met many contractors and small businesses out on the front lawn of the Legislature today, and they’re delivering the same message that I’ve heard right across the province. Our forest economy is so integrated in British Columbia that when a mill suffers a closure or a curtailment, this has a waterfall effect on everything in the economy, and small businesses are really, really struggling.”
Oakes says after 19 new taxes were introduced last year, she and her Liberal colleagues were hoping the NDP government would listen to the small business advocacy groups and make changes to help small businesses, but they have introduced more taxes.
“This year, there are 22 new taxes that are being introduced in this budget, and we know those 22 taxes are going to have a significant impact on small businesses in our communities,” she said. “We were hoping for a plan to be set forward by this government that looked at what steps could be put in place to help grow our economy, to help create jobs in our communities, and at first glance, we certainly don’t see that.”
Oakes did see some positive items in the budget that she thinks will be good for the Cariboo, including more funding for Foundry programs, which offer young people aged 12-24 health and wellness resources, services and supports.
“I really am a strong supporter of having a Foundry in Quesnel, and I know there is a team that is working on doing that work, so I really hope we are successful,” she said. “I was also pleased to see there is an increase in investment in our schools around mental health and addictions in our secondary school programs, and hopefully we may be able to benefit from some of that, whether it is counsellors or psychologists. I think it’s desperately needed, and I really hope that we can benefit from that.”
Overall, the B.C. NDP government’s latest budget carries on with its post-election program of subsidized housing, climate measures and taxes, while building up capital debt to record levels for hospital upgrades, transportation and other public works.
B.C. Liberal opposition critics pointed to stalled housing numbers and other signs of an economic slowdown, and tax increases including extension of provincial sales tax to streaming services. B.C.’s core natural resource revenues are also expected to remain low over three years, down by almost $1 billion from two years ago due to low lumber, coal and natural gas prices.
The budget adds a new top tax bracket for high income earners, and extends the seven-per-cent sales tax to sweetened carbonated drinks, including sugar-free products.
The budget projects small operating surpluses for three years, helped by personal and business income tax revenue and strong employment from projects including the Trans Mountain and Coastal Gaslink projects.
Public project spending is set to push B.C.’s capital debt to $87.6 billion by 2022, but that level “remains very manageable at 17.1 per cent of Gross Domestic Product,” said Bryan Yu, deputy chief economist at Central 1 Credit Union.
— with files from Tom Fletcher