Wednesday, February 19, 2014

On BC's "balanced" budget

When I first moved to British Columbia in 2008, I received a nasty surprise in the mail after a few weeks: a bill entitled "Medical Services Premiums" (or MSP, for short) for almost $300. It covered my first three months of health care premiums, which were around $95 per month at the time. Imagine my surprise at having to pay this unadvertised expense, as BC is one of the few provinces that still charges a separate MSP. Fast forward six years, and MSP has gone up over 30% for our to around $125 per month for the two of us. And the BC government just announced in their budget yesterday that MSP fees would be raised another $5.50 per month to offset the costs of rising health care, making it almost a 40% rise in fees in the past six years.

MSP is not without its detractors, as many people believe that it is a way of taxing British Columbians without having to label it a tax. Furthermore, although the government states that there are up to 1 million residents of the province who receive either reduction or elimination of the fee, it is also not pro-rated according to income, so the biggest crunch lands on people who do not qualify for those reductions (I think the line is around $30,000 per year) but who still do not have incomes to necessarily support the expense of over $1500 per year (and rising). And lest you think that a change in income would allow you to reduce your fee, it comes with a caveat typical of "Bureaucracy Central": your MSP is based on your previous year's income, and any application for receiving immediate relief is subject to a not insignificant amount of paperwork and no guarantee that anything will actually change.

A "balanced" budget

I mention MSP because there has been a lot of talk in the past 24 hours on the West Coast about how BC tabled a "balanced" budget for 2014, and is even expecting a meagre surplus of $184 million for this year. The BC Liberals have been pointing to their second consecutive balanced budget as a feat for the province and a point of pride, along with trumpeting the fact that BC has the lowest income tax in Canada. They have also been pointing out that they are putting "families first" by providing an early childhood tax credit that will give parents $55/month, as well as establishing RESPs of $1200 for any child born after January 1, 2007 on their sixth birthday (as long as the parents set up the RESP).

Their self-promotion seems to ring a little hollow in light not only of the rise of MSP fees, but the other impending rises in costs at the behest of the government. BC Hydro fees are being raised over 25% over the next five years, BC Ferries has recently increased their fares while reducing service. While both Hydro and Ferries are at arm's length from the government as Crown corporations, they are still significantly intertwined with and emblematic of the overall policy and practice of this government, which has been in power here since 2001. The overall result is that, while the government can boast that they have a balanced budget, costs for individuals living in BC will go up by several hundred dollars this year alone just from the rises in MSP, Hydro, and Ferries (especially if you're living in a coastal community). The government is, in effect, passing the buck to the consumer.

It's all about the framing

The issue here is not only how the government is choosing to balance the budget - on the backs of individuals - but also in the way that they are choosing to frame this accomplishment. Their announcements have been couched in political language that emphasizes their feat while minimizing the recognition on the effect of British Columbians in general. Though there are some benefits for families with small children that will (somewhat to mostly) offset the rises in costs, anyone who does not have children between the ages of 0 and 6 seems to have no benefit at all to living here, at least according to this budget. And although there will be minimal cost effect for the lowest economic tier of residents, as the government has pointed out, there are already significant barriers to living in this province as a lower-income person or family. The RESP benefit is a perfect example: in order to take advantage of it, parents need to be able to complete the work, but many parents who might most need to take advantage of the RESP contributions will not know how to fill out the forms.

The government, in effect, seems to be saying that the benefit of living in BC outweighs any possible detriments that come with a few austerity budgets, and they are not recognizing how much individuals have to sacrifice to be here in either their budget priorities or in their language about the budget. The government often talks about how great it is to live in BC and how they are doing their best for everyone, but these Liberals have also been notoriously friendly to business and high-income earners over $120,000. This does, however, seem to be a viable strategy for them, as they have won four consecutive majority governments, though their policies can be (and often are) interpreted as a lack of empathy for people who fall in the low-to-middle-class bracket ($30,000 to $120,000 income per year), and their attempts to frame this budget as anything but further burden on this group seem to be failing, if the media analysis is any indication.

The Best Place on Earth?

It is probably a little obvious that I am not a fan of this budget and even of this government's way of operating in general. I understand that a government has to present things in a certain manner and that a certain level of politics are involved, but it's hard not to feel a little slighted and insulted by the manner in which this government has treated me. I really wish that they would come out and be honest and say that this is going to be tough for British Columbians and that they have had to make cuts, but that would not be a very politically astute move. I wish that they would just be honest about the taxes that we pay, rather than trying to disguise them in fees like MSP, but, again, that would not be apropos.

The message being delivered over and over, by this budget and this government and even our license plates, is that BC is the best place on Earth, and that simply is not true. BC is a beautiful place to live geographically, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for families to live here, despite the government's assertion that their policy is "families first." Most people who choose to continue to stay here do so because they feel that the benefits (ie. the climate, the outdoors, the lifestyle) outweigh the detriments, although that does not account for the portion of the population that simply cannot afford to go elsewhere. The message sent by this budget by the government is that it is everyone for him or herself, and that they are not willing to make it easier for the people of BC, nor are they willing to admit that everything here is not okay. The message really is that BC might be the best place on Earth, if you have the money to be here, and that is not a "balanced" perspective.

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