Despite a vow of fiscal austerity, Premier Christy Clark proclaimed some things beyond cuts as she announced $40-million in extra spending to help developmentally disabled adults.
The money, responding to concerns about Community Living British Columbia, comes a week after the Premier also found $15-million in gaming grants for community organizations. Ms. Clark – while blunt in her anti-deficit rhetoric – was not backing off on the financial support.
"We are being very careful about how we spend citizens' money, but the thing is there is no question there are some areas of government services where we have to change the level of funding," she told a news conference.
B.C. teachers, effectively seeking a 15-per-cent wage increase over a three-year contract, seized on that comment from Ms. Clark, a former education minister.
"We'll use that quote at the bargaining table," said Susan Lambert, president of the British Columbia Teachers' Federation, adding she would ask the government bargaining agent to go back with the quote and request a new mandate.
The talks have been at an impasse over a "net-zero" mandate for settlements with public-sector workers.
Ms. Lambert, who noted she was personally supportive of more CLBC funding, said the sentiment behind Ms. Clark's comment was applicable to teachers as well. "Education has got to be a top priority," she said.
Ms. Clark promised next month's provincial budget, expected to chart a course to eliminating a deficit that could reach $700-million, would reconcile her focus on cherished priorities with the need for fiscal austerity.
Last week, Finance Minister Kevin Falcon said "everything is on the table" as he struggles to balance the budget, though he ruled out tax hikes and cuts to health-care spending. "You don't take anything off the table when you're putting together a budget," he told reporters.
Some had called for a $70-million increase in CLBC spending, but Ms. Clark said the review process did not start with a number. "We went about it and said, 'What do we need to fix, and then how much money will be required to fix that,'" she said. "If, at the end of that work, the report had come out and said we needed $100-million, that's how much money we would be announcing today."
On Thursday, Ms. Clark and Social Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux said the $40-million will be used to finance a series of recommendations, drafted through a review of issues around CLBC. They include a permanent appeal mechanism for individuals and families who have concerns about the services they are receiving, more say for families in planning for the needs of clients, and a push to put individuals at the centre of decisions.
Cuts to CLBC programs and group-home closures have fuelled complaints about CLBC, with some members of Ms. Clark's own government caucus saying the government is not doing enough to help people in need.
John Cummins, leader of the B.C. Conservatives, said that he had yet to see a serious commitment to austerity from the B.C. Liberals, but that he supported the increased spending for CLBC.
"When it comes to CLBC, there's a certain obligation to provide for those who can't provide for themselves. That's not a discretionary cost," he said in an interview. "But I must say I haven't seen any real indication that they are getting serious about restricting spending. That is the biggest concern."