By Fran Yanor / Legislative Reporter
Another socially-distanced legislative session kicked off this week, this one marked by COVID-related issues, a two-month delay of the provincial budget, and an Opposition bench tasked with holding a majority government in check during a pandemic.
“Our job as the Official Opposition is to hold the government to account,” said Interim BC Liberal Opposition Leader Shirley Bond on Feb. 26. “That’s going to be a challenging job with a significant majority in the legislature, but we have a skilled team.”
One immediate challenge will be the delayed provincial budget. The legislative session will run from Mar. 1 to June 17, with some breaks, and the budget will be presented on Apr. 20.
Typically tabled every year in mid-February, governments were legally bound to present a budget by the end of March. However, the Finance Statutes Amendment Act 2020, passed last December, extends the deadline to Apr. 30 when a budget follows an October election, as it does this year.
“British Columbians deserve to know the financial state of our province,” said Bond. “We should have had that discussion. The budget should have been tabled by now.”
Back in December, the Liberals voted against the legislation containing the extension.
“We really don’t see a need why it had to happen,” said BC Liberal House Leader Peter Milobar last week. “We said this would create uncertainty with groups. It was brushed off by government.”
Now, as session begins two weeks after a budget would normally have been introduced, agencies, businesses and associations are starting to get worried, he said.
“I’ve spent this week on a lot of Zoom calls with agencies and organizations that don’t know what the budget delay will, or won’t, mean to them,” said Milobar who represents the riding of Kamloops-North Thompson. “It’s incumbent on the government, they’re the ones that have delayed this budget, to provide that certainty.”
The December legislation also included a provision to extend special warrant spending authority to keep essential funds flowing if the budget and estimates are presented after the beginning of the new fiscal year – Apr.1 for most businesses and institutions – which will be the case this spring.
“It is not intended to provide for new program spending but, rather, to provide for continuation of the operations of government until a supply act can be passed by the Legislative Assembly,” Finance Minister Selina Robinson told the legislature on Dec. 9.
“Any enhanced or expanded programming cannot happen until a new budget is introduced,” Milobar said.
Meanwhile, the government will have four weeks to introduce legislation prior to the Throne speech, which occurs one week before the budget.
“I’m assuming the government will have work for legislators to do. We’ll have to wait and see what that agenda looks like,” said Bond, who is MLA for Prince George-Valemount, and will be attending the session in person for the first time since the pandemic began. Previously, she attended by Zoom, as do the majority MLAs due to public health restrictions.
The top priority is the pandemic and the health and well-being of British Columbians, but people are also concerned about economic issues, said Bond. “How is British Columbia going to emerge as we move ahead? Sectors, like the tourism sector, that have been decimated by COVID, what will the government do to support and energize that sector?”
Last year, the Province announced $105 million in funding for the sector, along with the creation of a task force made up of tourism and hospitality industry representatives to disperse the funding.
“We’re going to be highlighting the challenges that the Horgan government has created for small businesses and for British Columbians – a quarter of a billion dollars sitting on the sidelines, because the government couldn’t manage the to get it out the door,” said Bond, referencing the $280 million or so in COVID-19 relief funding still not disbursed from $300 million designated for small and medium-sized businesses.
The program is set to expire mar. 31, when any remaining funding will be rolled back into the provincial government coffers, Premier John Horgan confirmed in February.
“They’ve made lots of commitments, and many of them they’ve yet to deliver,” said Bond.
“There’s going to be no shortage of questionable situations around how the premier and his ministers have been handling their files,” said Milobar. “We’re all very focused on wanting to shine a light on the shortcomings of the government’s response to a wide range of issues.”
Additional priorities for the Opposition will include an economic recovery strategy and job plan, as well as, scrutiny of the vaccination roll out and continued calls for rapid testing in long term care and schools, said Bond, who is also the opposition critic for seniors services and long-term care.
“There will be lots of debate and dialogue,” said Bond. “It’s going to be a very intense session.”
Fran Yanor / Local Journalism Initiative / [email protected]