The BC NDP continues to furiously spend the multi-billion dollar surplus before March 31st.
In supplementary budget estimates I had a few minutes to ask questions about the decision of the Ministry of Municipal Affairs to distribute $1 billion to the Growing Communities Fund to support the priorities of the188 local governments across the province. In addition, they have allocated $450 million to critical community infrastructure and $45 million to support libraries.
The scale at which the BC NDP is spending is astonishing!
That is not to say that investing a billion dollars into local governments is a wrong-headed approach. However, local governments, through their lobby organization the Union of BC Municipalities, have been advocating for more than a decade for fiscal reform that produces sustainable, resilient sources of revenue that they can count on. This is not how the Growing Communities Fund is designed. Instead, they have created a one-time fund that will be distributed to local governments to be spent over the next five years.
One of the benefits of the way the Growing Communities Fund is structured is that local governments can use money for projects that are local priorities normally ineligible for federal and provincial conditional grants.
While the funds allocated for libraries, the equivalent of three years funding, is desperately needed by our community libraries, they have actually been asking for a per capita increase to produce a more sustainable system over the long-term.
In the end, this is more of the short-term thinking from Premier David Eby rather than the transformative, systemic change that we saw 50 years ago from former BC NDP Premier Dave Barrett.
Through you to the minister: congratulations on your new post.
Just a question with respect to…. The Union of B.C. Municipalities, for the most part of a decade or longer, has been advocating for fiscal reform, top to bottom, and what we have here is a one-time benefit that I don’t think any mayor and council are going to reject or complain about publicly. In fact, they’ll be very happy to get it. However, it further adds to the systemic issues that they’re facing, which is that they have to balance their budgets every single year.
Has the minister considered taking a similar model to the one that has been today, which now that we’re debating $1 billion, and making it available to municipalities on an annual basis so that they can fund the unfunded priorities that the provincial and federal governments don’t fund through their granting programs.
Hon. A. Kang:
Thank you for the question. Local government finance resilience review is still progressing between my ministry and members of the UBCM. Your question to the $1 billion fund — it is a one-time fund, but they have five years to use it. So local governments will be able to use the allocations of money for the years to come.
I appreciate the minister noting that the process for the Union of B.C. Municipalities is ongoing. It’s a project that I think started more than a decade ago, and that there’s been incredible, I think, reluctance on behalf of the provincial government, the previous government and the current government, to actually reform reform the fiscal framework for local governments.
What we see is celebrations happening on social media this weekend about the largest single investment in municipalities. This is a one-time gift, unfettered cash, when regularly the money from grants is fettered in all sorts of ways by the provincial government. What municipalities need is something more in line with what is being contemplated today, which is a $1 billion that municipalities can spend on their priorities, rather than spending it on the priorities of the Premier or the priorities of the Finance Minister.
Would the minister consider proposing a similar model to the one that’s being proposed today, for this one-time expense, to give access to resources for municipalities of all sizes — scalable, of course, to the size of the municipality — in order to help with the regular and ongoing needs of those municipalities, that are the priorities that are set by the community members and their constituents?
Hon. A. Kang:
The local finance resilience review with UBCM and the Ministry of Finance is the most recent report. It was from January of 2022. So it may not be over a decade, but we will continue to work very hard and engage with members of UBCM. This funding is one-time funding in nature.
These initiatives are anticipated to provide long-term supports and benefits to British Columbians and all 188 local governments that we have here in the borders of British Columbia. This includes initiatives to support health, affordability, reconciliation, climate, emergency preparedness and infrastructure supports for communities throughout B.C.
These priorities are not just our priorities as a province, but they are also the priorities of local governments.
Member, before you continue your questions, I did just want to remind you that we are on the supplementary estimates. So let’s focus on actual supplementary estimates overall, and we’ll have a better opportunity to do the broader budget discussion.
Thank you, Mr. Chair. My understanding is that we’re talking about decisions around $1 billion of taxpayer money. That was a decision that was made by this minister and how it’s spent. I am canvassing that.
I think what is reflected here in the seats on this side of the House…. I recognize I’m not going to point out any members who are or who are not here, but I would suggest that there is a considerable number of us that are sitting on this side of the House that were formerly on local governments. We all have been part of the process over the last decade or more, pleading with the provincial government to reform the fiscal framework — that one-time gifts, the granting processes that we have set in place, have not been sufficient to ensure that municipalities have been able to develop sustainable infrastructure and the sustainability of governing their municipalities.
The reality is that local governments are required to balance their budgets year over year and provincial governments not.
My question to the minister: was it ever considered to turn this $1 billion that’s being granted in this supplementary estimate to a permanent fund that could be drawn down — requests made by local governments?
I use the example in question period today about a fire hall that doesn’t currently fit within any of the granting programs. That’s a fire hall. Just because it doesn’t fit within the government’s funding programs doesn’t mean that the community on Saltspring needs a fire hall any less. Nor is it necessarily fair that the community on Saltspring should have to cover the entire costs of their fire hall.
There’s a lack of flexibility. But a permanent fund that local governments could request for projects such as the fire hall or such as other projects that my colleagues here have been making decisions about our are nevertheless needed.
To the minister: was it ever considered creating a permanent fund with this that could go on in perpetuity, giving access to municipalities — all 88, as the minister mentioned — to do funds that are priorities set by the community.
Thank you, Member. I appreciate your feedback. I do want to emphasize that we are focusing specifically on this time, this funding. I understand the validity of your question, which I do fully appreciate. But I do want to emphasize that we are focused specifically on this grant. Obviously, what you ask can be asked at a broader time when we’re talking about overall estimates.
I just asked if there was a decision point or an option made to the minister, that was brought to the Finance Minister, that rather than expending this fund as a one time dispersion, it would be turned into a permanent fund that could be drawn down. I think that’s a legitimate question for this $1 billion expenditure.
Hon. A. Kang:
Thank you so much for the question.
I won’t be able to speak to Treasury Board deliberation. But what I can tell you is that we know that this year’s surplus is unlikely to happen again, which is why we are tabling supplementary estimates right now.
Initiatives funded through the supplementary estimates are all one-time in nature to help advance the key priorities of government.
I think we’re going to be having a discussion later in a different ministry about the watershed fund that is set up in a similar way to the one that I just described, which was to create some permanence with the money that the windfall that British Columbia government has right now — the surplus, as the minister pointed out.
One final question, a similar question to the one that I asked about the municipal fund, the $1 billion. There’s $45 million dollars of this money that’s going to libraries. Similar to local governments, libraries have been pleading for more than a decade from the provincial government to increase the per capita funding.
Governments have been all too happy to advance small numbers of millions of dollars — a few million here, a few million there — to support libraries, a critical infrastructure in our communities for supporting equitable and universal access to information for our citizens.
Yet sustainable funding, year over year, has not ever been given by the provincial government to meet the needs of libraries.
Was it considered by the minister in making a recommendation to the Finance Minister about this budget estimates that we’re talking about today, the supplementary estimates, to turn the $45 million into a sustainable fund that could help cover the costs of libraries over the long term rather than just a short-term, one-time fix.
Hon. A. Kang:
I have strong passion for libraries as well. The province is aware of the social and economic pressures faced by communities and libraries providing services. I just wanted to clarify that the $45 million we are providing libraries is in addition to the $1 billion of the growing communities fund, so this is another separate item.
It is also the request of the libraries…. They have made the request for over three years, so this one-time funding is equivalent to three years’ worth of library funding. I will continue to consider how we can better support libraries and continue to be in good conversations with them.
To answer part of the question, as well, this funding will be able to help address the changing demands for local services, lifelong learning and work for skills, more accessible spaces and digital collections. This will also help libraries adapt physical and virtual library spaces to make them safer, to make them more inclusive and accessible as well as to extend services developed during the pandemic, because we know they were working and people really want them to continue.
Build a core provincial public library collection of digital resources that people can access with their library card. As well, strengthen the capacity of libraries to serve people to plan for right now and for the future.
Not a question. I just want to state to the minister that I recognize that the money that is being invested right now is going to be overwhelmingly accepted and people, both in libraries and communities, will be pleased with the investment.
The point that I’m making is that, when we are expending these large sums of money, we need to, I think, do them with some long-term sustainability and resilience in mind. There have been long-standing requests from both the Union of B.C. Municipalities and, as well, libraries for sustainable annual funding, not a hit of cash now and then a desert, and then it hit of cash and then a desert. We need to have a sustainable funding.
That’s the point that I’m trying to make today, not that this is not going to be a welcome investment on behalf of all of those community leaders. It absolutely will be.