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b.c. budget

Amanda McKay rides the bus with her son Nolan Bentley, 2, after picking him up from daycare in Vancouver on Feb. 16.Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

The B.C. government is moving to cut or eliminate medical services premiums for tens of thousands of British Columbians and boost funding for managing children in government care, policy files that have caused political headaches for a government facing re-election next year.

The measures were announced Tuesday in the provincial budget – a spending plan that comes ahead of the B.C. Liberals seeking a fifth, consecutive term in office in May, 2017.

But MSP rates will rise for most British Columbians and there is little additional relief for those living at the lowest income margins: Welfare rates remain frozen for a 10th consecutive year.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong maintained that his government's steady approach to its finances has meant "we are now in a position to do more to help people who need an extra hand."

But Amanda McKay, a 31-year-old single mother in Vancouver on social assistance, said she didn't hear much in the budget for her. As a former child in government care, however, she appreciated efforts to make things better for such children.

"I would have hoped to hear there was a poverty-reduction strategy. Single parents are raising the majority of children in poverty," said Ms. McKay, who has a two-year-old son and gets by on about $12,000 a year, living in government housing. "As a single parent, there's not much relevant news."

She said transportation is a key issue. She has to walk or rely on tickets provided by social agencies. Increased subsidies for social-assistance recipients with disabilities do not apply to her.

Iglika Ivanova, a senior economist with the left-leaning Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, noted the absence of a poverty-reduction plan even though one in five children lives in poverty. "This surely says at least as much, if not more, about our success as a province," she said in a statement.

The NDP and other critics have blasted the Liberals on their record of managing programs for children in government care – there are about 8,000 kids in that position, of whom half are aboriginal. Premier Christy Clark, whose government has faced intense questioning over the deaths of several children in care over the past few years, had earlier promised some spending increases but didn't provide specific details.

On Tuesday, Mr. de Jong announced an extra $217-million in spending over three years for the Ministry of Children and Family Development, which has been in the spotlight over issues related to its care of children. For this coming year, that amounts to $66-million, a figure that exceeds the recommendation of the senior veteran civil servant the B.C. government appointed to assess the ministry.

Bob Plecas, who helped launch the ministry, said in December that it should be given a $50-million increase in funding.

The money announced Tuesday will be used to hire more than 130 new ministry staff, including 100 additional front-line social workers, as well as support for efforts to help children in care with special needs and to spur adoption.

In 2014-15, the children's ministry had a $1.3-billion budget.

Mr. Plecas, a former senior civil servant, said Tuesday he was pleased with the budget measures.

"I think this is a very good day for children at risk in this province and I think the government deserves a lot of credit," he said in an interview.

But he added he will want to see a detailed plan for utilizing these new resources.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, the independent Representative for Children and Youth, also said the details are key.

"It's going to be very important to monitor carefully where this money goes and to see that it improves the quality of children's experiences," she told reporters during the budget lockup.

"I hope children will benefit because [they] have suffered [from] these penny-wise and pound-foolish approaches they have had at the Ministry of Children and Families."

Mr. de Jong's move to eliminate MSP payments for children was criticized for not going far enough. The government has also been under pressure to eliminate MSP over all.

But the Liberals ruled out dropping the premiums. Instead, they will be reduced for 335,000 people and cut entirely for 45,000 others. Once all the changes are adopted, about 2 million British Columbians will not pay them.

And the cuts introduced Tuesday are targeted. Premiums for most British Columbians will continue to rise. MSP rates, in general for those not covered by the new measures, are increasing by 4 per cent or $3 an adult, starting on Jan. 1, 2017.

During a news conference before his budget speech, Mr. de Jong said he had gone as far as he could on MSP reform for now, but faced limits because the government needs MSP revenues to help fund the health-care system, which is to receive $3.2-billion in additional funding over the next three years, compared with its 2015-16 budget.

The minister said the government will continue to monitor MSP policy, and was not ruling out further reforms as the balanced budget provides the opportunity to consider them.