Legislative Reports: British Columbia
As reported in the previous issue, the Minister of Finance and Government House Leader, Gary Collins (Vancouver-Fairview), presented the Liberal government's first complete budget on February 19, 2002. He defined the top priorities of the financial plan as "restoring sound fiscal management, revitalizing the economy, and putting patients and students first." To tackle the projected deficit of $4.4 billion, total spending in ministries, except for those providing health and education services, is being reduced by an average of 25 percent during the current fiscal year. To raise revenue, the following measures were announced:
* a 50 percent increase in Medical Services Plan premiums, except for people living on low incomes;
* an increase of 0.5 percent in the provincial sales tax to fund the doctors' recent pay increases, awarded by an independent arbitrator; and
* an increase in the tobacco tax of $8 a carton to raise $150 million in revenue.
The budget documents tabled in the House included the three-year service plans of all the ministries and Crown corporations, which were developed during the seven-month core services review that began in the fall of 2001. To ensure that cabinet ministers meet the government's spending targets, statutory salary holdbacks have come into effect for the 2002-03 fiscal year. The 2001 Balanced Budget and Ministerial Accountability Act specifies that 10 percent of the salaries of members of the executive council will be payable only if the public accounts show that the government's bottom-line target has been achieved. A further 10 percent will be paid only if ministers meet the spending targets set out in their own ministry service plans.
Under the new annual parliamentary calendar, Budget Day takes place on the second Tuesday in February, some six weeks earlier than in previous parliaments, when the budget was usually presented closer to the fiscal year-end. As a result of the new schedule and the lack of a sizeable opposition, the review of the estimates by the House was completed by April 29, 2002. The Supply Act, 2002-2003 advanced through three readings on the same day, a practice that has been permitted in British Columbia since 1996.
Part of the government's plan to overhaul the health care system involved amending laws passed by the previous government. For example, the Health Planning Statutes Amendment Act, 2002 makes seven changes that are designed to strengthen public safety, improve the governance of health professions, deal with outdated regulations and to use resources more efficiently, with the anticipated cost savings to be directed back to patient care.
Changing the education system has been another top priority on the government's agenda. In terms of legislative action, lifting the freeze on tuition fees at the province's colleges and universities required the repeal of a regulation made under section 10(2) of the Access to Education Act. Other changes to the post-secondary sector included the passage of the Degree Authorization Act, which expands the degree-granting authority of both private and public post-secondary institutions inside and outside B.C. As well, the School Act is in the process of being amended in order "to improve student achievement." The proposed changes include establishing school planning councils as forums for parental involvement, providing parents and students with more choice about schooling, and lifting spending restrictions on school boards and giving them more autonomy.
Other government bills introduced during the Spring sitting include two welfare measures that redefine the eligibility criteria and rules for people claiming ordinary and disability benefits, emphasizing employment and self-sufficiency. The Employment and Assistance Act and a companion statute, the Employment and Assistance for Persons with Disabilities Act, are designed to cut $600 million from the $1. …