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Rob Shaw: Premier Eby running up spending to catch up to crises

David Eby has hit the ground running as premier, but what’s also running right alongside him is the financial tab accompanying his many promises.
Premier David Eby speaks to his affordable housing platform at the Housing Central Conference at the Sheraton Wall Centre Hotel in Vancouver.

David Eby has hit the ground running as premier, but what’s also running right alongside him is the financial tab accompanying his many promises.

Eby spent almost $900 million in his first four days in office on new cost-of-living and public safety measures. That will likely exceed $1 billion once you factor in yet-uncalculated costs for his housing reforms, which are supposed to include an “amenity” fund that gives municipalities new provincial cash for things like parks and bike lanes if they hit their housing targets.

Four days and $1 billion is an extraordinary pace. And that’s not counting what is yet to come, including much-anticipated health-care reforms.

“We have a strong financial background,” Eby said on Sunday after being sworn in and announcing affordability reforms.

“We can provide that support to British Columbians, and we will, because what is government for if not to support people when they are struggling, to get them through, to give them that hand up, and to be able to be successful?

“We have the financial positioning to be able to do that.”

The BC Hydro rebate, which will provide a $100 bill credit to everyone next month, doesn’t actually come off the government books directly. Hydro says it is paying for it out of a $400 million pot filled with extra money it accumulated due to higher-than-planned demand for electricity, market trading and COVID-19 savings.

“It’s being paid for immediately with the $400 million surplus,” said spokesperson Mora Scott.

Eby’s most expensive promise so far – clocking in at $500 million – is his new affordability credit, which will give the lowest-income families up to $410 in January.

Combined with $76.5 million in public safety measures announced Sunday (including repeat offender management teams, Indigenous justice centres and police-civilian expert teams), the total direct hit to the provincial budget is at least $577 million this fiscal year.

Is that money immediately available in the budget?

Finance Minister Selina Robinson, whose first quarter financial update in September pegged this year’s surplus at only $700 million, says yes.

“We’ve made sure because of our thoughtful and strategic planning, and through all of our budgeting, that we can continue to deliver for British Columbians,” she told me Tuesday.

“And that’s exactly what you’re seeing in the new premier’s rollout.”

Both Robinson and Eby have hinted at an even rosier economic picture to be painted when B.C. releases the second quarter financial results on Friday.

So, the cash is there. And even if it wasn’t, you get the distinct impression neither Eby, nor the general public, is too concerned about dipping the province into deficit in order to fund much-needed solutions to the crises of crime, health care, cost-of-living and housing.

The Opposition BC Liberals, though, will be sounding alarm bells.

“It clearly demonstrates a very calculated political pattern, one of spending without any discernible outcome to use as a reference point,” said finance critic Peter Milobar. “What would even be considered a success or not?”

It’s particularly concerning when the public has yet to get a full financial accounting of the cost of ongoing public sector labour agreements, said Milobar.

Eby has made clear there’s more to come. The expectation for health-care reform is rising, and anything to do with that file will be enormously expensive.

Still, the new premier has a lot of room to run – both politically and financially, as he closes out his first week as head of government.


Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.