A gas-tax deal that could be worth upwards of $20 million over the next 20 years for the City of Prince George is the 'single biggest unexpected victory' for municipalities in the federal budget, says Prince George Counc. Garth Frizzell.
Among the new spending programs in the 2013-2014 federal budget, tabled Thursday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, are commitments by the federal government to index the gas tax money given to municipalities at two per cent a year and continue the Building Canada fund for another 10 years.
By extending existing infrastructure funding for another decade, Frizzell said it will be easier for local governments to budget their own long-term spending commitments.
"That gives us a lot of predictability, that was another thing we were looking for in the funding packages," he said. "We wanted to make sure there was predictability and that he had programs that weren't lottery style where we had to compete against other municipalities."
Long-term funding for infrastructure projects and engaging employers in job skills training programs were among the highlights of Thursday's federal budget.
It is also projected $263.9 billion in revenues, but contained a deficit estimated at $18.7 billion.
Cariboo Prince George Conservative MP Dick Harris said he's pleased the gas tax money can now be used for projects beyond just water, sewer and bridge enhancements.
"They can now go into infrastructure items such as sports arenas and cultural centres. It's quite an expansion," he said.
Skeena Bulkley Valley NDP MP Nathan Cullen said the infrastructure funding is misleading because the Building Canada fund doesn't take inflation into account. He said that amounts to a $5 billion cut over the next decade.
"Shortchanging the fund $5 billion and not being honest about it is going to set up a lot of communities for disappointment," Cullen said. "People can add, and they have this thing called the Internet and they can look up what the reality actually is and the reality is that there's less money for infrastructure, period."
Flaherty also announced the creation of the Canada Jobs Grant program, which is intended to give employers a bigger say in skills training. Once implemented, employees will be eligible to receive a grant for up to $15,000 for training programs, with the money coming equally from the federal and provincial governments as well as the employer.
"The big incentive for the government to move that way to [more employer involvement] is the fact that in all of our travels across the country we've met with industry and employer and every sector and they've had one common request for this budget - we need skilled workers," Harris said.
College of New Caledonia president John Bowman welcomed the idea of giving employers more of a role in the training process.
"It's critical, particularly around apprenticeship training and preparing more people to work in construction and industrial trades where we see a big gap in northern British Columbia right now," he said. "Doing everything that we can provincially and federally to encourage employers to hire apprentices and support them through the training process to complete their journeyperson credentials is going to be vital for our economy and for the productivity of the nation."
Provincial Jobs, Tourism and Skills Training Minister Pat Bell said the concept is one worth studying, but the federal government must follow through on its commitment to work with the provinces to sort out the details.
"Obviously we're going to need some more details to understand what qualifies and what doesn't qualify but the principle of getting employer engagement, provincial engagement and federal government makes sense," Bell said.
Bowman also wants to see more details of the plan, but believes CNC can benefit in the long run.
"Hopefully it will mean we'll be able to expand access to needed programs, to support people in completing the programs that we currently offer and basically to continue to provide and outstanding return on investment," he said.
Cullen was critical of the plan, pointing out the government is redirecting money it had previously allocated to give directly to the provinces for skills training. He said given the skills shortages in northern B.C., more money needs to be invested in training.
"All this does is move money from one pot to the other," he said. "Money that was going to the provinces, who we think have a better sense of the skills needs that are going on in the different regions, is now going to be clawed back by Ottawa."
Harris countered that the new program leverages the employer commitment, which didn't exist under the old model of grants to the province.
The budget projects a $6.6 billion deficit next year with a return to a small surplus expected in 2015-16.