How much is the COVID-19 pandemic costing B.C. taxpayers, and how much of the rapid growth in public spending and government staff is temporary?
Opposition MLAs received some answers as the B.C. legislature session winds down this week, but much of the spending continues to come from unprecedented, borrowed contingency funds, and a large portion of it is likely to be built into future budgets as the pandemic recedes.
Questioned about the current budget this week, Finance Minister Selina Robinson said the B.C. government’s payroll has increased by $6.5 billion in the past two years. More than half of that, $3.8 billion, is related to increasing health ministry resources, and paying higher wages to health care staff.
B.C. Liberal finance critic Mike Bernier said public service agency records show an increase of 104,000 government staff since Premier John Horgan’s NDP government came into office in 2017. In dollar terms, that’s an increase of $10 billion or 27 per cent over four years, he said, bringing the province’s total employee compensation bill to $37 billion.
“What tax increases, what revenue sources does the government see in the short term to pay for this large growth in the public sector?” Bernier asked Robinson June. 15. “Do they see that happening year over year, or are we going to be slowing down post-COVID?”
With a deficit of $8.1 billion for the fiscal year that ended in March, Robinson’s current budget projects another $9.7 billion deficit this year, declining to $5.5 billion in 2022-23 and $4.3 billion in 2023-24.
“We’re a government that’s committed to returning to balance,” Robinson said. “The path to balance will certainly be evident when we bring in budget 2022.”
Robinson said part of the four-year payroll increase comes from wage increases negotiated under the B.C. Liberal government. She emphasized the province’s effort to reach its own mandated senior care home staff levels, and quickly move to eliminate care home employees working two or more part-time jobs in different locations. That transition also included a pay increase to union rates.
In debate on his budget, Health Minister Adrian Dix said B.C.’s health ministry has added 29,000 staff, including temporary positions such as 1,100 COVID-19 contact tracers. Dix has estimated that increasing pay and positions for senior care homes is expected to cost $10 million a month over the previous base.
Other expenses include an increase in surgical capacity to overcome procedures delayed by COVID-19 restrictions, and development of primary care centres in communities across the province to address the shortage of family doctors and take pressure off hospital emergency departments.
Dix noted that health ministry expenses rose by about three per cent per year from 2013 to 2017, rising to about five per cent per year between 2017 and 2020. That jumped to more than 15 per cent in 2020-21, mostly funded out of pandemic contingency funds, and the ministry has treasury board approval for another $992 million in contingency spending this year.