British Columbia has earmarked $2.1 billion to fund disaster recovery efforts and future response to the threats posed by wildfires, floods and heat waves in a budget that forecasts a $5.5-billion deficit.
Finance Minister Selina Robinson said Tuesday a three-year climate fund will support ongoing disaster cleanup and rebuilding in southern B.C. communities hit by last November’s floods and mudslides.
The budget does not include a total estimate of the recovery costs, prompting the government to add a $1.1-billion contingency fund in its financial accounting for the 2022-23 fiscal year to cover future costs.
“While we have all experienced the realities of climate change this year, I can’t help but think of Indigenous people in the Nicola Valley, farmers in Abbotsford and the residents of Merritt, Princeton and Lytton,” said Robinson, referring to communities damaged by flooding or wildfires last year.
“There is a long road ahead and rebuilding what we have lost is only part of the job,” she said. “We must act now to protect people and communities against future climate disasters.”
Robinson said the $2.1-billion climate response and adaptation program includes wildfire prevention support for communities and expands the province’s B.C. Wildfire Service into a full-time operation.
Heavy rains last fall also triggered landslides that closed major rail and highway transportation routes to B.C.’s Interior.
Aaron Sutherland of the Insurance Bureau of Canada said the climate funding is an important step to addressing the risks associated with climate change.
“It’s important as a society, we come together and have a frank conversation around how we’re going to better protect our communities moving forward,” he said. “This is the first budget I can think of that really starts to put serious investments into building resiliency into those risks.”
Robinson said the climate fund includes $1.5 billion to support disaster recovery and response activities underway in hard-hit communities, covering contracts for debris removal and clean-up costs.
The minister said despite the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change and the discovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, the province strives to be economically, socially and environmentally strong.
“We have all learned a great deal over the last two years,” Robinson said. “Through each challenge, we have seen time and time again that we are stronger together. There is a long road ahead as we all rebuild and repair the damage left by these difficult times.”
The budget forecasts economic growth of 4% economic growth in 2022, down from the 5% estimate for 2021.
The deficit is forecast to drop to $3.2 billion in 2024-25. The provincial debt is forecast to increase to $105 billion in this fiscal year from $91.5 billion.
Families can expect lower child-care costs, she said, adding that the NDP government is “continuing to make progress” towards its promise of $10-a-day child care, with fees to stand at $20 a day by the end of the year.
The budget also includes $633 million to address homelessness primarily through providing more secure housing and support options for vulnerable people.
Smokers can expect to pay more effective July 1, when the government will apply the provincial sales tax to tobacco to offset the costs to the health-care system.
Robinson said forest industry workers and communities affected by the government’s strategy to protect old-growth forests will be eligible for a $185-million program that provides retirement-bridge funds and job training.
Opposition Liberal Leader Kevin Falcon said the budget does not address critical issues facing people in B.C., including housing affordability, rising gas prices and increasing food costs.
“This is possibly one of the most disappointing budgets I’ve had to look at,” said Falcon, adding the government has failed to set strategic goals.
He said the government’s plan to spend $27.4 billion on infrastructure over three years, which includes expanding the SkyTrain from Surrey to Langley, lacks timelines and there are no details on construction schedules.
“I look around the Lower Mainland and I can’t see anything new built,” said Falcon. “They don’t know how to get big projects done.”
However, Falcon said he commends the government for helping forest workers transition from the industry and for extending some youth-care supports to age 27.
Green Leader Sonia Furstenau said in a statement the budget acknowledges the province’s challenges but lacks the vision to deal with the overlapping crises facing B.C.