VICTORIA - British Columbia Premier Christy Clark enters the next provincial election attempting to sell her "families first" image with a pair of budget promises aimed at parents - first to care for children when they are young and then to educate them as they enter adulthood - that will require little new spending in the short-term and won't benefit taxpayers for years.
Clark's finance minister, Mike de Jong, was almost apologetic as he acknowledged he had little new to offer British Columbians in the Liberal government's 2013-2014 fiscal plan, which will set the tone for the May election.
The budget's flagship promises include a post-secondary grant that will deposit $1,200 into Registered Education Savings Program accounts, also known as RESPs, for children when they turn six. The budget also includes a tax credit for parents of children under six, worth up to $660 a year, which takes effect two years from now.
There is also new funding for childcare and early childhood services, as well as youth arts programs.
The government has placed cutting costs and balancing the budget ahead of new spending, and those two programs are among the very few de Jong had to boast about on Tuesday.
"With admittedly limited resources available, we are seeking to unleash the power of that savings in partnership with parents," de Jong told reporters in a briefing before he tabled his budget in the legislature.
But even those programs were designed to acknowledge the reality that the province has very little extra to spend.
The education and training grant will cost about $30 million a year, but that money will come from the province's Children Education Fun, set up in 2007, which sets aside $1,000 for every child born in the province.
The tax credit is estimated to cost $146 million during its first year - beginning April 1, 2015.
De Jong described the childhood tax credit this way: "Cumulatively significant, admittedly a couple of years down the road."
The education and training grant takes effect immediately, providing children born after Jan. 1, 2007, with a one-time deposit into their RESP accounts. Those children will have access to the money, in addition to any their parents invest themselves, when they enrol in a post-secondary program. If they never do, that grant money will be returned to the province.
To qualify, parents must already have a RESP account and apply for the grant between their children's sixth and seventh birthdays. Parents whose children turn six this year will have until Feb. 28, 2014, while the program is being set up.
The grant will be available to children born in B.C.. They will keep the grant money even if they later move to another province.
The program will be administered by the federal government.
The early childhood tax benefit will provide families with children under six with up to $660 a year per child through a refundable tax credit.
Families earning less than $100,000 a year will be eligible for the full benefit, while those making between $100,000 and $150,000 a year will receive a reduced amount. Families making more than $150,000 a year will receive nothing.
That program will also be administered by the federal government alongside the Canada Child Tax Benefit.
The province estimates about 140,000 families will receive the full benefit, while about 40,000 will be eligible for a reduced amount.
Paul Kershaw, a researcher at the University of British Columbia who is part of a campaign known as Generation Squeeze, says the savings grants and the tax credits amount to a "rounding error."
"Since they don't come into place for years, I'm really skeptical about what value they will deliver," said Kershaw.
"It really does nothing to reduce the squeeze on income, it does nothing to make it more affordable to spend time at home with your child. This is window dressing."
Kershaw said the budget increases what he described as a power dynamic between seniors and young people, with retirees on the receiving end of government services worth tens of thousands a year per person, while younger generations receive roughly a quarter of that.
The budget also sets aside new money for childcare spaces through what the government is labelling its "early years strategy."
That strategy includes $32 million over three years for new childcare spaces, $37 million over three years for child care and early childhood services, and $7 million over three years to co-ordinate early development programs for young children.
The budget also continues $20 million in annual funding for the province's sports and arts legacy fund, as well as $18 million for a new program aimed at increasing youth participation in the arts.
The next provincial election is currently scheduled for May 14.
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