Bill Bennett speaks in favour of provincial budget

On Feb. 17, Kootenay East MLA and Minister of Energy and Mines, Bill Bennett, spoke on the Liberal government's 2016 budget.

Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett.

The BC Liberal government announced the 2016 budget Tuesday afternoon, which included a surplus of $264 million. Kootenay East MLA Bill Bennett shared his thoughts and opinions on the budget on Wednesday morning, which is the fourth consecutive balanced budget the Liberal party has presented.

“For me, this is the kind of budget that really makes you feel good about being an MLA and being in public service,” said Bennett. “It gives us latitude to actually spend some money. We still put 50 per cent of the surplus towards debt, but there is some money that we can then spend on things that are important.”

Bennett focused on how the budget will affect his constituents in the Kootenay East riding, including the Elk Valley.  Funds for rural initiatives included supporting the Rural BC Connectivity, which works to provide high speed internet to the remote corners of the province and allocating more funds into the Buy Local BC Food program.

Provincial social programs received a total of $673 million over three years, which will be divvied up to support vulnerable youth and families, adults in need, and people living with disabilities.

“There are a lot of adults that are struggling and the case load is going up. Community Living BC will get some more money because of that,” said Bennett.

People living with disabilities will see a $77 per month increase in support, which Bennett says will help 100,000 people across the province.

The province made good on their promise to set up a Prosperity Fund, and have allocated $100 million to the “rainy day” fund. However, critics say the Liberal government is wrong to take this funding from general surpluses rather than the liquefied natural gas (LNG) industry, as Premier Christy Clark originally intended.

One area that received ample attention from both the province and the media was housing. Under the new budget, the province introduced a housing incentive for people buying newly constructed homes.

“Anyone that buys a new home in the East Kootenay up to a threshold of $750,000 is going to get a very considerable break on the property transfer tax,” said Bennett. “What we are trying to do is provide incentives to be built and new house to be built. It’s a very strong element of our economy so that is why we increased the threshold for new home buyers.”

People buying new homes will be exempt from the Property Transfer Tax, saving them upwards of $13,000. Bennett believes this will have a more visible effect in Cranbrook than it will in Fernie due to the variances in the housing markets.  The Fernie housing market is more influenced by out-of-province investors, as it is a resort municipality, driving housing prices higher than market average.

“The only way that this is going to help our market is that it is going to encourage builders to build new houses and buyers to buy new houses and that certainly will be good for our local economy,” said Bennett, adding that construction jobs provide employment across a variety of industries.

When it comes to low-income housing, the province stipulated that $355 million will be made available to support affordable housing through Housing BC. Groups in the East Kootenay looking to create affordable housing in the area will be eligible to receive some funding in cooperation with BC Housing.

“It is going to take some initiative for the people in the various communities around the province to figure out what is possible,” said Bennett in relation to the affordable housing funding. He also added local governments should be a part of the conversation when it comes to local affordable housing.

Other areas Bennett expects the budget to directly affect the East Kootenay includes expanding the small business tax credit program by $5 million and $44 million into flood protection and mitigation. There was an additional $26 million more allocated for highway maintenance, which allows for a larger budget to maintain local highways.

“Whoever wins the bid that is out for highways maintenance in the East Kootenay, there will be more money in that contract and that means that there will be higher standards for winter maintenance in that contract,” said Bennett. “I think there are a lot of people that will appreciate that as well.”