Home advantage: The capital finally gets a premier, but will there be benefits for the region?

Les Leyne mugshot genericOn Jan. 19, Premier John Horgan announced $10 million for improvements on the road to Sooke, and promised more to come.

There are dozens of roads around B.C. that need work and the transportation ministry has assorted criteria for listing how they’re stacked on the drawing board.

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Did Sooke Road gradually rise up the priority list and get to the top coincidentally a few months after the MLA for the region served by the road happened to become premier of B.C.?

Of course not.

Horgan used his premier’s prerogative just like any premier would to do something for his own voters. He’s heard complaints about the road for years. Now he’s got the power to do something. So he did it.

That simple fact of political life — cabinet ministers like to look after their own — created a wave of anticipation in the Greater Victoria business world about last summer’s change of government.

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A Saanich boy turned Langford man is now premier and he’s put a number of neighbouring MLAs in cabinet. Carole James (Victoria-Beacon Hill) is finance minister and deputy premier. Rob Fleming (Victoria-Swan Lake) is education minister and sits on Treasury Board. Lana Popham (Saanich South) is agriculture minister.

Two of the three Green MLAs who are supporting Horgan’s minority government, leader Andrew Weaver (Oak Bay-Gordon Head) and Adam Olsen (Saanich North and the Islands) are locals. The third — Sonia Furstenau (Cowichan Valley) is just a short drive away.

That concentration of power in the region after a protracted period when the governing B.C. Liberals had no MLAs and minimal interest in spending much money locally has the business world dreaming big.

But the dreams are now clouded by a recent wave of antipathy to some NDP tax moves, most notably the employer health tax. Ten months in, it’s not clear how the change of government is going to net out for local business.

If business leaders had to list their relationship status with the government on Facebook, they’d pick: “It’s complicated.”

They’re closely aligned on some main themes — the emphasis on housing and child care. But they are far apart on the tax measures the NDP plan to use. The capital is enjoying an economic boom, but leaders are worried the new government is taking it for granted. And they’re not predisposed to support the NDP, even if the cabinet is stocked with familiar faces.

Victoria Chamber of Commerce CEO Catherine Holt has long experience dealing with government and is a keen observer of how it works.

“My observation is that a change in the premier has as much impact as a change in party.”

Gordon Campbell and Christy Clark had radically different styles and it was noticeable throughout government. John Horgan represents another big change. It appears to be in the direction of homing in on the affordability issue and keeping an external focus on “what we’re going to use government for,” she said.

After the NDP and the Greens brought down the Liberals last July, Holt said there were high hopes that “the long period when the region had been neglected would be over.”

The capital went the previous four years with the nearest government MLA living 160 kilometres away. Now cabinet is stocked not just with locals, but multi-term MLAs who are lifelong residents.

“They understand the priorities … they have credibility locally,” said Holt.

But there was “huge disappointment” in February when the first full NDP budget imposed a surprise new tax on business.

The employer health tax, designed to partially replace Medical Services Plan premiums, was “unexpected,” she said. “It’s got some very strange aspects … that’s added some uncertainty and conflicting emotions about how this government is going to turn out for local business.

“The magnitude of the [tax] impact is unbelievable.”

Employers who pay their staff’s MSP premiums will see the costs double, triple or even quintuple. And as currently designed, they’ll pay both MSP and the health tax for one overlap year. It’s “inexplicable double taxation,” said Holt.

Those who don’t cover MSP will get a big brand-new tax bill.

It’s a big offset to that anticipation about having such clout in cabinet.

Holt said the business world tilts toward the Liberals, but that government did little investment in the region.

“Now we have a government run by a party that’s not the natural home of business, but has the benefit of local well-known, knowledgeable people. It creates a contradiction in the minds of a lot of business people.”

The direct hit on their books courtesy of the tax is much more immediate and obvious than the abstract generalized goals the government is trying to achieve, Holt said.

Nonetheless, the premier is scheduled to speak at a luncheon hosted by five local chambers of commerce in May. It’s the first time in memory that’s happened.

Jeff Bray was a Victoria Liberal MLA from 2001 to 2005 and is now acting executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association.

He agrees the local connections are a big welcome new factor.

“They’re automatically going to have a level of understanding … that this region hasn’t see for a while.”

The change of government took place in the midst of a renaissance downtown, said Bray. The sustained boom has put pressures on businesses, who have to retain workers when housing and child care costs are challenges.

Moves on those fronts will benefit downtown business, he said. Budget promises create the theoretical potential for hundreds of new student residences at UVic, which would open hundreds of basement suites and the like for entry level employees who want to live close to their jobs.

But the health tax and minimum wage hikes are sore spots.

“There is a real optimism downtown that balances some of those concerns, but there is no question that is something our members are looking at closely.”

There’s a common view Victoria got left out of some discretionary spending over the Liberal years.

“What our members felt were logical investments didn’t come to fruition,” said Bray.

The new government’s makeup creates “an opportunity that doesn’t come along very often.”

Langford Mayor Stew Young is an ardent free enterpriser and will never be an NDP member. But he was just starting his political career during the NDP’s two terms in the 1990s and has fond memories of working with them. There was similarly heavy local representation in cabinet at the time, and corresponding big local spending.

“There used to be a [clogged] intersection at Millstream Road and the highway with an old billboard that said ‘Auto Racing on Saturday Nights,’ ” Young recalled.

The Millstream interchange opened in December 1996, one of the first big examples of the West Shore transformation. Young said the NDP of that era did a good job on infrastructure, spending on sewers and roads.

The current NDP government is more oriented toward social problems than the economy, he said. Those need to be addressed, but Young wants to see more infrastructure and signs that the housing money is spent properly. Municipal delays add 15 per cent to the cost of a house and need to be cleared away by bonuses for faster decisions or penalty clauses in grant money for delays, he said.

Langford and neighbouring communities will be the epicentre of the affordable housing push and Young wants it done right.

At the same time, as someone who promotes Langford far and wide, he is vehemently opposed to the speculation tax, just as he was to the Liberals’ foreign buyer tax.

He brandished a sheaf of letters in a recent interview from Bear Mountain residents who are facing thousands of dollars in new property taxes. About 30 per cent of the homes in that massive development have non-B.C. owners and are vacant for part of the year.

“The calls and letters, I’ve never seen this kind of pressure,” he said.

“I’m 120 per cent against the speculation tax. It’s the absolute worst tax I’ve ever seen.”

Even after the NDP’s retreat on several aspects of the tax, Young opposes it and wants Langford exempted. It puts an “artificial blame” on some people for the housing crisis and tries to manipulate the free market as punishment.

But he gets along fine with the premier — “John” — and is looking forward to carrying on.

“He’s a common-sense guy … He’s not way out left-leaning stupid thinking or very right crazy thinking.

“We have these conversations and we sort of get along that way.”

Victoria Mayor Lisa Helps makes it her business to get along with the province no matter what. She has no problem with the speculation tax.

But even Helps, devoted to relationship-building with cabinet, admits to having “significant trouble” with the employer health tax. It will cost Victoria $2 million and that’s a two per cent property tax nobody needs, she said.

Greater Victoria business generally likes where the NDP is going and loves watching local neighbours drive the bus. But not how they plan to fund the trip.

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