B.C. Premier John Horgan defended the large increase in his office budget Thursday, as the legislature wrapped up a delayed spring session dominated by COVID-19 and the problems the pandemic has moved to the back burner.
Opposition critics asked why the premier’s office budget has increased by 30 per cent this year, to more than $14 million, for a total of more than 60 per cent since Horgan’s minority government took office in 2017. The latest increase comes mostly from converting a secretariat, set up to work with the B.C. Greens in the minority, to a planning and consultation group.
B.C. Liberal MLA Mike de Jong said Horgan’s responses in budget debate suggest the secretariat will deal mainly with inter-government issues, from border and cruise ship problems to the next round of softwood lumber tariff increases that looms this fall.
“Is it money well spent?” de Jong asked. “Well, four years on, we are no closer to a softwood lumber agreement, and American tariffs are poised to increase yet again. In just a few weeks, the cruise ships will begin sailing right past B.C. ports, ports like Victoria, as a precursor to what may become a permanent state of affairs, where they no longer stop at those ports.”
He read from a letter from B.C.’s cruise industry alliance that indicates the problem facing B.C. ports that have been forbidden by Ottawa to accept U.S. cruise ship stops until March 2022: “We know the cruise lines generate higher revenues during their time in Alaska ports than they do in Victoria. We know they often feel rushed from their Alaska destinations in order to get to Victoria for the necessary stop in a foreign port.”
Horgan is attending a premier’s conference with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week to update plans for reopening the Canada-U.S. border.
B.C. Liberal leader Shirley Bond used the final hour of debate to ask why the NDP government hasn’t re-introduced legislation to allow brief medical detention of teens after a drug overdose, which was the key reason Horgan cited for withdrawing the bill and calling the October snap election after the B.C. Greens refused to support it. Bond said answers from Mental Health and Addictions Minister Sheila Malcolmson suggest that eight months later, consultation on a new law hasn’t started.
“We’re committed to bring the legislation back to this house for a full and frank discussion,” Horgan replied. “We are focusing on the voluntary treatment options that were raised at that time.”
Finance critic Mike Bernier asked why pandemic recovery payments for business will be taxed. Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon responded by citing the size of the benefit payments, a program that grew from $300 million to $530 million after multiple changes to strict eligibility rules.