Housing, health care and climate change appear top of mind for British Columbians heading into the 2024 budget process, according to the final report from perhaps the most powerful legislative committee in B.C. Other key issues include regulatory reform and labour shortages.
The Select Standing Committee on Finance and Government Services conducts an annual tour of the province to receive input prior to budgeting and released its final report Thursday (Aug.3) following a tour of 11 communities where members held 16 public hearings.
The report distills 375 in person-presentations, 387 formal submissions and hundreds of emails from all sectors of society into 166 recommendations across 12 broad policy areas.
“The (committee) identifies housing availability and affordability as a priority area,” reads the report in recommending “investments to significantly increase the full spectrum of housing supply, noting the need to partner with municipal and federal governments, and community organizations on these efforts.”
The nine-member committee (five NDP, four BC United) also calls for incentives to build more housing, including non-market housing, more money for supportive and complex care housing and more support for smaller local governments to address growth. Notable specific recommendations call for increasing the property tax transfer exemption for first-time home buyers and reviewing it annually to reflect changing market conditions.
When it comes to health care, the report notes “many British Columbians, particularly in rural and remote areas” raised concerns about staffing shortages and access barriers.
Recommended solutions include: incentives for recruitment and retention; streamlining out-of-province credentials; and increasing post-secondary training seats. The report also calls on the government to regulate physician assistants under the College of Physicians and Surgeons of British Columbia.
In the related area of mental health and addiction, the report recommends more money for addiction treatment and recovery services and increased funding for mental health services, including making psychiatric medications cheaper and making counselling services available under MSP.
Efforts to fight climate change also rank among the “key themes,” with the report including several references to farmers and ranchers facing challenges.
“Members agreed on the need for additional supports, including investment into strategies and technologies to ensure the resiliency of the (agricultural) sector while also ensuring the financial stability of farmers and the sustainability of farming production,” it reads.
Several environment groups lamented what some may say amounts to a penny-wise, pound-foolish attitude toward dealing with climate change.
Okanagan Climate Hub said government is spending $1.6 billion over the next 12 months on climate mitigation, emissions reduction and adaptation, far below the two per-cent-of-GDP-ratio, which Nicholas Stern, former World Bank Chief Economist, had recommended. At the same time, the committee heard government is already spending billions to recover from extreme weather events each year.
Two related recommendations include a review of the carbon tax with an eye toward reconciling decarbonization with competitiveness, and developing a system that protects industry from foreign competitors not subject to carbon taxation.
The committee recommends reviewing the employer health tax exemption threshold for small businesses after several submissions that the threshold be raised to decrease regulatory burden. The committee also recommends that government exempt tool purchases from PST for registered apprentices and technicians and review the application of the PST on used vehicles sales, and for vehicles over $55,000.
However, the final report does not include demands for higher taxes from unions. According to report, CUPE-BC called for additional tax brackets above the current maximum of $240,076 at rates higher than 20.5 percent, while BCGEU called for an increase to the marginal personal income tax rates for high earners. Both unions argued that higher taxes would reduce growing income-inequality and more resources for programs and services. The committee also heard calls for a wealth tax, but did not recommend one.
The committee also made several recommendations to deal with labour shortages, including measures to attract more foreign workers and improve skills training. The committee also heard among other concerns about the “(under-representation) of women, Indigenous peoples, and racialized people in the skilled trades” because of “systemic issues” such as bullying and harassment.