The BC Liberal government is plotting a course toward an early test of its strength in the legislature, working to rewrite its budget with enough appeal to opposition MLAs – specifically, Green MLAs – to allow it to survive a vote in the House as early as June.
Whether Premier Christy Clark snags a bare majority on the final ballot count by Elections BC next week, or if she is left seeking to lead a minority, her government will be redrafting this year's fiscal plan in the coming weeks. It will be British Columbia's first Green-influenced budget since the emerald-hued pages that made up the budget that introduced the province's carbon tax in 2008.
Ms. Clark's Liberal Party currently holds 43 of the legislature's 87 seats on the preliminary count from the May 9 election, but with 180,000 absentee ballots yet to be tallied, her government could edge up to a majority – or lose ground – when the final numbers are in on May 24. The NDP, at 41 seats, is close enough to toppling the Liberals that its co-operation is highly unlikely. It is the Greens, with three seats, who are poised to be in a position to influence the balance of power.
The Premier's office intends to appoint a cabinet in June and then to recall the legislature quickly. Her government would need to introduce a Throne Speech which would require a vote of confidence from the House. However Ms. Clark appears intent on testing the strength of her new government with a new budget as well. If she does not have enough support, the government would collapse and John Horgan, the NDP Leader, would have a chance to try to put one together.
Ms. Clark has indicated that she expects she will need to work with Green Party Leader Andrew Weaver and his caucus to govern even if the Liberals could pick up enough seats for a majority. While negotiations continue about what that collaboration might look like, it is unlikely the Greens, fresh from an electoral breakthrough, would jump into any formal coalition arrangement. Instead, the best the Liberals can hope for in a minority scenario is an agreement with the Greens to support the pending throne speech and budget.
Because the election interrupted the process of passing a budget in the spring, the province does not have a fiscal plan in place. The government has the authority to spend money that should last until September, but if Ms. Clark can pass a new budget, that would get the government through any immediate crisis of confidence.
Mr. Weaver has indicated he wants electoral and campaign-finance reform as a minimum price for Green support for either the Liberals or the NDP. Neither of those demands are budget items.
To win budget support from the Greens, the Liberals will likely be looking at new spending on education, as a starting point, and possibly some tax changes.
The Green platform outlined more than $1.1-billion in new spending in the current fiscal year, most of it for increased support for education from early childhood through to postsecondary. The fiscal plan tabled by the Liberals in February included a surplus of $295-million plus a forecast allowance of $350-million. There is enough fiscal room to adopt some of the Green's wishes, but some tax hikes would still be at least on the table for consideration.
The Greens want a comprehensive program for early-childhood education and free daycare for working parents with children under the age of 3. The Liberals once promised to phase in junior kindergarten, a program that was shelved. Reviving that could go a long way toward satisfying the Greens.
As well, the Greens wanted more spending on schools, beginning with $220-million this year – on top of the $330-million in additional funding committed by the BC Liberals to address the recent court ruling on class size.
The Greens told voters it is time to return to a more progressive tax system where the wealthiest pay more for programs for the most vulnerable. They proposed to increase income tax rates for those earning more than $108,460 annually by 1 per cent this year. The Liberals could meet them halfway by restoring a high-income tax bracket that expired in 2015 – a measure that brought in $200-million over the course of a full year.
The Greens proposed to raise the corporate income tax by one percentage point, from the current rate of 11 per cent, a measure that would net an estimated $200-million annually. The Liberals have opened the door to corporate tax hikes before and a 1-per-cent hike would put B.C. on par with Alberta's rate.
Ms. Clark had promised voters to continue the freeze on the carbon tax, but Mr. Weaver wants to raise it by $10 a tonne each year for four years beginning next January, and to widen the scope of the tax.
The Greens would also end the freeze on welfare rates as part of a transition to a livable income. The Liberals have frozen the rates for the past 10 years.