By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter

Despite two weeks of grilling from the Opposition about the Recovery Benefit qualification process and roll-out, online applications for the tax-free relief payment began on Dec. 18, with payments expected five days after applying.

Finance Minister Selina Robinson delivers a fiscal update on Dec. 17, 2020. / Government of BC photo

The Recovery Benefit, promised by Premier John Horgan during the recent election campaign, is a one-time, tax-free COVID-19 relief payment of up to $500 for individuals and as much as $1,000 for families, depending on their income levels.

A family that earned less than $125,000 in net income in 2019 will receive the full $1,000. Families with net incomes up to $175,000 will qualify for a lesser benefit amount.

Individuals who earned less than $62,500 in 2019 will qualify for the full $500 benefit, and those with net incomes up to $87,500 will receive lesser amount.

Debate over the Recovery Benefit dominated Question Periods and debates in the two-week legislative session in December.

On Dec. 17, Liberal Finance Critic Mike Bernier grilled Finance Minister Selina Robinson about how the income ceilings were set, why 2019 tax data was used, and how the payments would be rolled out.

One key criticism on the Opposition side was the government’s decision to base the Recovery Benefit qualifications on people’s income from the previous year.

“I thought the whole point of this exercise was to look at people that were affected by COVID, not to look at what happened in 2019,” Bernier said to Robinson during debate over funding for the Recovery Benefit.

Tax returns were the simplest, fastest and most reliable means by which to determine eligibility, Robinson responded.

Because 2020 tax information hasn’t been filed yet, Canada Revenue was approached to see if the provincial payment could be delivered using more current federal data or existing funding mechanisms, she said.

“CRA is absolutely swamped and unable to adjust their program to accommodate any changes that we would be making, so it was a given that that was off the table,” said Robinson.

Instead, the provincial government determined 2019 tax data with higher income qualification thresholds – including middle and lower income earners – would be the surest way to capture those most in need in 2020, while also ensuring the lowest levels of fraud.

“With large payment programs like this one, there is always concern about fraudulent claims,” said Robinson. “It would be difficult, once payment was made, to then recover it.”

There have been significant cases of fraud reported related to federal COVID-19 funding programs.

Based on Ministry of Finance modelling, about 90 per cent of British Columbians, or 3.7 million people, will be eligible for the Recovery Benefit, and 85 per cent of those people will be eligible for the full amount.

The Recovery Benefit will not be taxed federally or provincially and it won’t be used to reduce Employment Insurance, Robinson said, responding to questions from Bernier.

After Dec. 21, applications for the benefit can also be made by phone or in-person at a ServiceBC location. Payment delivered by direct deposit into people’s bank accounts should arrive within five days of applying, Robinson said.

British Columbians have until June 2021 to complete an application.

For those without bank accounts, or for people who are unable to meet eligibility requirements, such as, tax information or a fixed address, a second delivery system is being developed to enable the disbursement by cheques in the new year.

“Staff are working diligently to develop the parallel system that has all the checks and balances like an online system,” said Robinson. “The goal is to work as quickly as we can to get these resources into people’s hands.”

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Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]