VANCOUVER -- B.C.’s government released its 2021-2022 budget Tuesday, with the province forecasting a multi-billion dollar deficit for the previous year and announcing a strong financial focus on COVID-19 pandemic recovery.

The province has been under a state of emergency for more than 13 months and the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on its financial outlook. In fact, the province entered that record-breaking state of emergency just one month after presenting its 2020 budget.

“Many people are still feeling the effects of the pandemic — and they will for a long time,” Finance Minister Selina Robinson said while presenting the fiscal plan. “There is no doubt that COVID-19 is still very much with us.”

The latest forecast projects a deficit of $8.1 billion for the previous fiscal year, Robinson announced in her presentation. That’s down from a projection made last year, which predicted the deficit could be as high as $13.6 billion.

Robinson credited that improvement to higher-than-expected revenues, including taxes collected from strong housing and retail sales and moderately lower spending.

The finance minister explained while B.C.’s retail sector saw the largest monthly decline on record in April 2020, that eventually rebounded, and by January 2021, sales were 15.3 per cent higher than the previous year.

As well, the province’s housing market stayed resilient in spite of the pandemic, with monthly home sales reaching record levels in 2020.

Even so, Robinson warned B.C.’s economic recovery is expected to be uneven across various sectors. For example, hospitality, recreation and tourism will all likely continue to be impacted in the year ahead, and it’s expected B.C.’s GDP won’t return to 2019 pre-pandemic levels until 2022.

“Our recovery won’t happen overnight,” Robinson said. “But by choosing to invest in people and building the collective resilience of our province, we will keep moving forward together.”

Funding for COVID-19 recovery and health care

B.C.’s budget has $3.25 billion in pandemic and recovery contingencies for the year ahead.

That includes $900 million set aside specifically for “health-related COVID-19 management,” such as vaccine distribution, testing and contact tracing, expanded flu immunization and screening for COVID-19 at long-term care homes.

“For many B.C. seniors, staying safe meant saying goodbye to visits with family members, hugs from grandchildren, or just a trip to the post office or grocery store. And it has been an incredibly difficult and lonely year for so many parents and grandparents,” Robinson said.

“Budget 2021 continues to protect seniors by expanding home health monitoring systems and adding more care aides to assist with daily living at home.”

Other pandemic-related spending includes $1.05 billion to support people and businesses, $200 million to prepare for economic recovery and $1.1 billion in reserve to support any unanticipated and urgent health or recovery measures.

The province is also taking steps to improve health care across B.C., including spending $585 million to train and hire up to 3,000 people as health-care workers, $45 million to address systemic racism against Indigenous people in the health-care system and $500 million over three years in new funding for mental health, which the province says is the “largest investment ever made” in the field.

More child-care spaces, wage boosts and free transit

Announced in the 2021 budget is $233 million in additional funding over three years to Childcare BC, which is the province’s 10-year plan.

Highlights from this year’s budget include investing in 75 more child-care centres in the province’s $10-a-day program, which will increase available spaces to 3,750 over the next three years.

As well, the province announced more wage enhancements for approximately 11,000 early childhood educators across B.C. In last year’s budget, a $2-per-hour wage boost was announced, bringing the median wages to almost $23 per hour. This year, B.C. is doubling that enhancement, bringing ECE median wages to almost $25 per hour.

“I want to take a moment to recognize B.C.’s early childhood educators. This year you went above and beyond to keep child care centres open and children safe,” Robinson said.

“Not only do you support B.C. kids, you are the workforce behind the workforce. We are proud to recognize your role and return the support.”

In addition, the province announced that starting in the fall, children aged 12 and under will be able to ride transit for free.

Support for seniors, those on income assistance

The finance ministry says the 2021 budget includes the largest ever permanent increase to income and disability assistance in B.C. Since 2017, the province has increased monthly payments for people receiving that assistance by a total of $325. The increase in the 2021 budget alone is $175.

As well, B.C.’s seniors’ supplement will be doubled, which the province says will help up to 80,000 low-income seniors.

The finance minister says this is the first increase to that supplement since it was introduced in 1987.

Spending for parks and local tourism

The latest provincial budget also included new funding for parks and tourism in B.C. Earlier this week, the province announced it would increase funding for parks by $83 million over three years. 

In announcing that increase, Environment Minister George Heyman explained the new funding will mean the capital budget for parks will increase by 57 per cent, while the operating budget will go up an average of 22 per cent for each of the three years.

Part of that investment will go to adding 100 new campsites throughout the province each year, starting in 2022.

“Our province’s natural beauty is also a great source of wealth, one that we have all come to rely on as we turn to the great outdoors to recharge in a COVID-safe way,” Robinson said Tuesday.

“Budget 2021 enhances people’s access to nature by expanding and improving campgrounds and trails.”

Funding will also be poured into supporting the local tourism industry as it recovers from the pandemic and for local recreation. In the budget, $30 million has been set aside to support initiatives in communities marking B.C.’s 150th anniversary of entry into Confederation.

As well, $100 million will be set aside to support tourism recovery, including $20 million for community destination development grants for local communities.

“We have all been through a great deal. I’m sure every single one of us can point to a moment in the last year when our world was turned upside down,” Robinson said.

“There are challenges ahead, but I am confident that by drawing on our shared resilience we will get through these challenges together … The pandemic will end. But our work to build a better future will not.”