'Not much new' for business in B.C. budget, say industry representatives

With most of the big announcements made long before Finance Minister Selina Robinson rose in the legislature to deliver the provincial budget Tuesday, there was a muted reaction from the business community to a document that was heavily focused on pandemic recovery.

Avery Bruenjes, policy analyst with the Retail Council of Canada, said businesses are grateful for continued funding for many of the programs announced last year as part of the government’s StrongerBC initiative, although many businesses still don’t qualify for the measures.

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“Frankly, there isn’t much new in [the budget] for business or retail,” said Bruenjes.

Tuesday’s budget included $195 million to continue the Small and Medium Sized Business Recovery Grant Program, which allows businesses to access up to $30,000 to support recovery and adapt to COVID-19.

There’s $150 million to support the Increased Employment Incentive tax credit; continued PST exemption on the purchase of select equipment and machinery until the end of September; and a permanent move to allow restaurants, bars and tourism operators with liquor licences to purchase beer, wine and spirits at wholesale prices.

The budget includes $500 million over three years to expand the digital economy through the InBC fund, an investment fund to help companies scale up, and attract and retain jobs and investment in B.C.

Andrew Wynne-Williams, vice-president of the B.C. division of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, said the sector wants a comprehensive plan. “There is still no industrial and manufacturing strategy,” he said, noting that without a framework with defined goals, such as supporting B.C. manufacturers first when it comes to procurement, there will be no guarantee of success.

Wynne-Williams said the pandemic has illustrated how local manufacturing can rise to the occasion — a number of B.C. companies that did not exist 12 months ago are manufacturing personal protective equipment.

Although the amount of spending and increase in the province’s debt is “unnerving,” Wynne-Williams said, it’s “warranted and supportable in the short term.”

The Canadian Federation of Independent Business said there was little for small business, though it was pleased the government did not impose new taxes or additional costs.

“While the province has managed the pandemic well in terms of allowing businesses to keep open as much as possible, small businesses are still very much in survival mode,” said federation director Annie Dormuth. “The budget was a missed opportunity to help businesses through the immediate and current crisis and provide a plan to help them to recover in the long-term.”

The federation had hoped to see a plan to get back to balanced budgets, a reduction in red tape and an expansion of COVID-19 relief measures.

“Government debt levels are always concerning to small business because they fear it will lead to future tax increases. However, small businesses do recognize running deficits during this time is unavoidable,” she said.

Also missing was funding, announced earlier this year, for the beleaguered transportation sector, said Bruce Williams, chief executive of the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce. “We’re hoping to see money that, in some cases, was announced very publicly, actually get into the pockets of businesses that need it. As we recover from the pandemic, it will take much longer for the economy to recover if we have to rebuild transportation infrastructure that could be lost if those businesses are not able to hang on,” he said.

Dormuth and Bruenjes both said they appreciated the fact that Robinson alluded several times to a contingency fund that could be made available to help small businesses during the current “circuit-breaker” COVID restrictions.

The Business Council of B.C. saw good and bad.

While it appreciated measures to improve child care, re-training workers, mental health, and funding to support businesses and people that are vulnerable, it missed the mark on improving the investment climate, it said.

By not addressing the tax structure with the budget, the government has made it difficult for companies to invest, create jobs and come up with innovations in the province’s high-wage commodity and energy-export sectors, the council said.

aduffy@timescolonist.cdom

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