The British Columbia budget tabled on Tuesday promises to respond to climate-related disasters with investments in prevention measures and a down payment on rebuilding after last year’s deadly heat wave, floods, landslides and wildfires.
The $73-billion spending plan projects a deficit of $5.5-billion for 2022-23, and banks on an economic recovery from the pandemic that it admits is not assured.
The province promises to increase its capacity to forecast floods and heat waves, take a more pro-active approach to wildfires, and improve floodplain mapping to help shape where rebuilding will take place.
But the budget has put off an accounting of the cost to rebuild crucial transportation links damaged in November’s destructive storms until a fiscal update later in the year. The work has not yet been put out for bids, and the Treasury Board hasn’t approved a financing plan for reconstruction.
Kelly Scott, president of the BC Road Builders and Heavy Construction Association, said he expects the money to pay for highway repairs will be in addition to Tuesday’s budget.
He said the bidding process for highway repairs will start within two weeks, with some contracts awarded by the end of March. “A lot of these [land]slides, they are still trying to figure out what is the best way of rebuilding. It’ll be a work in progress.”
The budget promises just $400-million this year to pay for known costs from the floods, which will cover removal of debris and financial assistance to individuals, businesses and communities. That is on top of the $500-million in emergency costs spent in the immediate aftermath of the November storms – including the work to get key transportation routes temporarily patched.
Another $1.1-billion is earmarked for recovery contingencies – an unassigned pot of money that could be used to start reconstructing dikes, fixing highways or other infrastructure repairs. The budget acknowledges that the demands to support the recovery from climate-related disasters could push spending higher than forecast.
An analysis by The Globe and Mail estimates the total repairs will cost as much as $9-billion, but as yet the province has not provided its own figure.
In December, Ottawa committed at least $5-billion as its share of disaster relief, and that money has not yet been delivered and is not accounted for in the provincial budget.
“While the fight against climate change continues, recent disasters show that we must strengthen our defences at home,” Finance Minister Selina Robinson said. “There is a long road ahead, and rebuilding what we have lost is only part of the job.”
Laurey-Anne Roodenburg, president of the Union of B.C. Municipalities, said the combined commitments from B.C. and Ottawa are substantial – now the money needs to flow through to flood-damaged communities.
“We are at a very early stage of the recovery, and it will be some time before we know what the full cost will be in order to build back better,” she said. “What we do know is that the needs in communities like Princeton, Merritt and Abbotsford are urgent. My hope is that the government will use every tool at its disposal to put these funds to work as efficiently and effectively as possible.”
Responding to questions from reporters, Ms. Robinson indicated that reconstruction needs to be devised in a way that makes the province more resilient to climate disasters – and that will take time. For example, the province needs to assemble better maps of flood risks before launching a plan to improve the extensive network of dikes and other flood protection structures.
“We want to make sure we rebuild for what future climate events might throw at us, so it’s really important that we understand what it is going to take,” she said.
Over all, the province anticipates strong economic growth as B.C. reopens after two years of pandemic measures, and as governments at all levels invest in flood reconstruction.
The budget promises record-breaking spending on mental health and addiction services, and the largest affordable housing investment in B.C.’s history.
The pandemic continues to stretch the health care system, and the province has added $875-million for COVID-19 supports. The pandemic is also identified in the budget as the greatest risk to the fiscal plan – with uncertainty ahead about the extent of the spread of the virus, and the global pace of economic recovery.
On top of the natural disasters and the pandemic, B.C. is experiencing a toxic supply of illegal drugs that led to a record number of deaths in 2021. The province announced no new initiatives to deal with the crisis, but continues to pursue a strategy of mental-health supports, addictions treatment, complex care housing, and work to deliver a prescribed, safe supply.
Ms. Robinson was unapologetic about the deficits projected over the next three years, saying her government has chosen to spend on a stronger social safety net and skills training programs that are designed to meet the needs of the labour market in the coming decade.
But she noted that B.C.’s economy remains relatively strong. The province is in a tie for the lowest unemployment rate in the country, and it has the fastest job growth since the start of the pandemic two years ago.
Capital spending in B.C. will rise to the highest level ever – with new schools, transit, highways and hospitals. Those projects are expected to create 100,000 jobs over the next three years. “It’s capital spending we need to do right now,” Ms. Robinson said, but she stressed that the province’s total debt load is still sustainable.
The budget begins to address shortfalls in emergency preparedness that were laid bare last year.
A heat wave early in the summer killed 600 people, and overwhelmed emergency health responders.
November’s record-breaking rainstorms brought destruction across southern B.C. with almost no warning, leading to the evacuation of almost 20,000 people, cutting off highway and railway links that paralyzed the Port of Vancouver, and led to fuel rationing with the weeks-long shutdown of the TransMountain oil pipeline.
The province will now increase staffing at the River Forecast Centre and Emergency Management B.C. to better prepare for and respond to climate-related events. It will develop an extreme heat response plan and it will boost grants to communities for measures to reduce the risk of wildfires such as the one that consumed the village of Lytton last summer.
Local governments have estimated damage to community infrastructure from last November’s floods will exceed $1-billion, and the province has already committed $120-million to assist with recovery. In Tuesday’s budget, the province has pledged $800-million for flood response and recovery, but that will be shared among local governments and disaster support to thousands of homeowners who were unable to obtain overland flood insurance.
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