British Columbia will invest more than $2-billion in an economic recovery plan that aims to avert additional job losses owing to the pandemic, B.C. Premier John Horgan announced Thursday.
The plan, unveiled with the catchphrase “Stronger B.C. for Everyone,” was delivered amid fevered speculation that Mr. Horgan is preparing for a snap election this fall. The stimulus package includes $1.5-billion in spending, as well as an additional $660-million in tax relief for business.
Mr. Horgan, who has led a minority government in B.C. for more than three years, has stoked election speculation by saying he is no longer bound by a pact between his New Democratic Party and the Green caucus that ensured neither side would trigger an early election.
On Thursday, the Premier confirmed he is mulling a fall election, and said the recovery plan can be implemented by public servants – leaving his cabinet ministers free to participate in a campaign. “I’ve not made a decision on an election," he said.
Seven months after the first case of COVID-19 was identified in the province, the B.C. economy has partly rebounded, but there are still 150,000 fewer jobs. The recovery plan promises to protect 200,000 existing jobs in the private sector and would create 1,500 jobs in community works, including wildfire protection and wetland restoration. It would also open 5,800 additional positions in health care.
The funds were earmarked last spring for economic recovery, but the pandemic is far from over – the province recorded its highest number of COVID-19 cases in a single day on Thursday, with 165 new ones.
The Premier, who announced the plan at a campaign-like event staged at a popular Victoria microbrewery, acknowledged the province has not turned the corner. “The pandemic is just beginning,” he said. “I know that people would like to hear something different, but we’re just starting a very long journey that we have to take together.”
Private-sector forecasters expect the provincial economy to shrink by 5.4 per cent in 2020, but a turnaround is anticipated in 2021 with growth projected to be 5.2 per cent. For businesses that are hoping to survive until then, the government relief package is welcome, said Bridgitte Anderson, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade. “We are pleased to see many of our recommendations were included within the province’s announcement.”
The recovery plan notes there are some sectors of the economy, such as tourism, that will not easily recover.
“After a sharp supply shock that was concentrated in certain sectors, the aftershocks are more widespread throughout the economy,” the economic recovery plan says. “Although these challenges are perhaps not as acute as the ones we faced in the spring, they are potentially more stubborn. Even if there were a COVID vaccine universally available tomorrow, the economy likely would not bounce back to pre-COVID levels on its own."
For industry, the government is offering up to $660-million for a provincial sales tax rebate on new machinery and equipment, and additional tax credits for businesses that increase their payroll. There is money to help the tourism sector plan for a better 2021, but also for green projects such as salmon habitat restoration.
Dan Baxter, of the BC Chamber of Commerce, said the package is a welcome start. “We’re taking to heart that this is just the next step, not the final step,” he said in an interview.
Environmental organizations cheered the investments in green infrastructure, including $220-million for climate mitigation and adaptation. “Today’s announcement is great news for watershed restoration,” said Mark Angelo of the Outdoor Recreation Council of B.C.
The funding was approved last March, during an extraordinary legislative session marked by all-party co-operation. The minority government, considered so fragile when it was formed in the summer of 2017, showed unanimity around the pandemic response measures. “Partisanship has left the building,” Mr. Horgan said in March.
Now, with widespread speculation that Mr. Horgan is poised to call a snap election, that goodwill has evaporated. Both the Liberal and Green opposition leaders insist there is no need for a fall election, and that the provincial government should stay focused on the pandemic, not politics.
Andrew Wilkinson, the BC Liberal Leader, said the recovery plan is disappointing and will not restore consumer confidence that is needed to stimulate job growth. “They’ve tried to kick-start an election campaign," he said, "but this plan falls so flat, I wouldn’t be surprised if they back off.”
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