B.C. budget a flop for most construction stakeholders

Journal of Commerce | Warren Frey | February 26, 2024

British Columbia’s new budget is leaving most industry leaders underwhelmed.

While the budget, delivered by Finance Minister Katrine Conroy on Feb. 22, focused on individual benefits as the province prepares for an election in October, construction association leaders found little in the way of infrastructure announcements or measures with a positive effect for the industry.

“Big picture, while it’s laudable to be investing in families and trying to address social issues, it would be really nice if government could invest in infrastructure projects such as roads and other large projects that could start pushing the economy forward,” said COCA BC President and CEO Dr. Dave Baspaly. “It seems like it’s been sort of rolled over in lieu of anything that’s interesting to our membership in terms of fuelling the economy and helping business thrive in B.C.”

Progressive Contractors Association of Canada B.C. regional director Dan Baxter was also nonplussed by the new provincial budget and took issue with the government’s framing of “having people’s backs” when community benefit agreements (CBAs) “cut out vast swathes of the workforce” on government projects.

“You look at that and deficit numbers, and if they really wanted to they could make a small little change that opens the bidding process to get value for those projects and make it more competitive. It takes that one small step to better maximize those taxpayer dollars, lower the debt a little bit, put people to work and truly have people’s backs,” Baxter said. 

The 2024 provincial budget projects a deficit of $7.9 billion, a record amount for B.C., with economic growth at less than one per cent.

Budget “underwhelming from the construction industry perspective”

Baxter added infrastructure funding in the budget was for previously announced projects, with very little in the way of new projects.

“To support people we need to build more trade-enabling infrastructure and build it more cost effectively,” he said. “Let companies bid based on the labour model they want to use. We’ll get more companies bidding, can lower costs down and build more for less.”

British Columbia Construction Association (BCCA) president Chris Atchison also expressed disappointment and termed the budget “underwhelming from the construction industry perspective.”

“Given the infrastructure requirements of this province and the demands on housing, there’s nothing specific to address the shortage of the construction workforce. There’s no new significant money going towards training seats for skilled tradespeople or programming designed to encourage the participation of new workers so colleges and institutions that need those funds aren’t getting it. Skilled Trades BC isn’t getting it. I think that sends the wrong message to a workforce we’re trying to encourage,” he said.

Lack of prompt payment action 

Atchison also noted a lack of commitment to prompt payment legislation and said while the government has committed to more affordable housing, it’s undercut by an exodus of construction sector workers from the province.

“When we are doing things to encourage investment in housing starts why are we not having reciprocal buy-in from contractors and workers? To take it up to the 30,000-foot level, you can make policy adjustments that streamline things but if you aren’t sending the right message to the workers or the businesses that employ those workers, you’re kind of pushing on a rope,” Atchison said. “Political change is welcome for those who are here but might be too late for those who have decided B.C. isn’t working for businesses or doing all it can for workers and supply chains that it’s trying to affect.”

Independent Contractors and Businesses Association (ICBA) president Chris Gardner reiterated in a release CBAs would stifle growth.

“The B.C. government, by giving a monopoly on significant work to just the 15 per cent of the construction industry represented by the traditional building trades unions, continues to grossly overpay for infrastructure. At a time when we need more schools, hospitals, roads and transit, government should be using the power of fair, open, and competitive bidding to stretch taxpayer dollars as far as they can go,” Gardner said.

ICBA also commented on the deficit stating it “will cause long-term damage to the provincial economy and imperil B.C.’s competitiveness.”

“These operating deficits will severely limit British Columbia’s ability to respond to future economic shocks and pursue economic development opportunities. Absent a recession – which the provincial government denies is here, despite B.C.’s per-capita GDP basically stagnating for seven years – there is no justification for covering government operating costs through borrowing,” ICBA chief economist Jock Finlayson said.

BC Building Trades struck an optimistic note about the provincial government’s focus on alleviating individual economic pressure.

“The BC Building Trades supports the government’s continued investment in programs that will help workers through intense affordability challenges. This budget sends the message to working British Columbians that the province has their back,” BC Building Trades Council president Al Phillips said in a statement.