Budget leaves Okanagan balanced but empty-handed

Finance Minister Mike de Jong announced the 2014 B.C. provincial budget as boring and balanced.

MLA Dan Ashton focuses on the second B as being the most important to the South Okanagan.

“It’s balanced. Second balanced budget,” said Ashton, who had the position of being the first responder to the budget in question period.

“It’s a very good budget for B.C.”

Ashton said the balanced budget, which the Liberals again achieved by forecasting the sale of government-owned properties, will encourage growth in the long-term.

But in the short-term, the budget contained no mention of the hoped for expansion to Penticton Regional Hospital.

Ashton said there isn’t any reason for it to show up in a budget year. There are still a number of steps in the process before it gets to the budget stage, he explained, including finishing the business case, which the Treasury Board is still waiting to receive and approve or disapprove.

“When the business case is complete, the paperwork gets submitted through Interior Health and it will be discussed in the budget process,” said Ashton.

One of the project’s biggest boosters also wasn’t surprised by the lack of mention.

“I’m not fretting over this one at all,” said Janice Perrino, chairwoman of the board of the Okanagan-Similkameen Regional Hospital District.

“In fact, I would have been surprised if we had seen it listed, because that would have said, ‘Gee, we haven’t even seen the plan and already we’re agreeing to it.’”

The hospital is now included, however, in the new Health Ministry service plan as one of 14 major capital projects around the province that are underway or in the planning process.

Perrino is also optimistic the B.C. government’s pledge to increase health spending by $2.5 billion over the next three years will mean cash for construction.

“That tells me they realize they’ve got some expenses they’ve got to consider,” she said.

Perrino may be reading a bit more into that pledge than Ashton, who sits on the Treasury Board.

The budget includes $2.6 billion on health-sector infrastructure, less than a three per cent growth, a much lower rate than in previous budgets.

“The premier has said there is a notional indication at treasury board regarding PRH, I have to leave it at that,” said Ashton, reiterating that both Premier Christy Clark and Health Minister Terry Lake have promised to back the project.

“We have the premier saying it not once but twice, we have the health minister saying it, that the hospital is going to be built,” said Ashton.

Perrino expects the business case for the hospital tower to be complete this spring, followed by a 12 to 18 month procurement process once funding is approved, then a three-year build.

According to the budget breakdown, taxpayer-supported capital spending on schools, hospitals, roads and other infrastructure over the next three years is expected to total $11 billion.

This includes $1.5 billion to maintain, replace, renovate or expand K-12 facilities, $2.3 billion for capital spending by post-secondary institutions across B.C.

That doesn’t add up to any help for the education system, with most school districts, like Okanagan Skaha, struggling with budget shortfalls and increasing costs, according to BC Teachers’ Federation  Vice-President Glen Hansman.

“Budget 2014 makes a lot of promises about trades, transforming education, and supporting teachers and students, but there is nothing to back those promises up,” said Hansman.

“For example, there is a long list of promises around trades education and its importance to BC’s economic future.

“However, there is no new funding to deal with the unsafe and overcrowded shop classes we have across the province today.”

Ashton said it is all part of the process and the government is doing what it can.

“There is not a lot of new money. Nobody has that, including the government, so by this repurposing they are making funds available that will go to skills training,” said Ashton.


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