Kamloops’ MLAs are back in Victoria this week — virtually and in person.
The B.C. legislature reconvened on Monday with about 25 members in the chamber and the rest attending via Zoom, due to pandemic-related physical-distancing measures.
“Strange is probably the best way to describe it,” Kamloops-North Thompson MLA Peter Milobar said.
Milobar was among the 12 Liberal MLAs attending in person, while Kamloops-South Thompson MLA Todd Stone attended virtually, with screens set up for those on the video conference app.
Stone said use of the technology was seamless.
“My presence was felt this morning [Monday]. I gave a pretty impassioned statement on homelessness — did that from my office here in Kamloops as if I was sitting in the chamber,” Stone said, noting he expects to be physically present in the provincial capital for most of the remaining five-week session, which ends on Aug. 12.
B.C.’s parliamentary calendar has MLAs sitting in the legislature Mondays through Wednesdays starting this week, followed by virtual committee meetings to debate ministerial budget estimates on Thursdays and Fridays. Milobar noted all of that is normally accomplished in person, Mondays through Thursdays.
“This is an attempt to get as much of the estimates as through as possible and get budget votes to a point where everything’s finalized,” Milobar said. “That’s our new way forward, at least for the five weeks of this sitting.”
The B.C. Liberals have been calling on the government to release updated financials with revised revenues and expenses, given the pandemic’s impact on the province’s bottom line.
“The province’s finances and the finances of British Columbians have been absolutely devastated and it doesn’t make any sense to be debating a budget that was introduced prior to this current set of circumstances,” Stone said, arguing the NDP government should introduce some sort of update regarding the $50-billion spending plan detailed in February, as well as the $5-billion COVID-19 recovery plan passed in March.
“To this point, they haven’t,” Milobar said. “We’re still expecting that to happen and, if not, we will still do our best with questioning … where the excess spending has been going, what are the revenue projections moving forward?”
In question period on Monday, the B.C. Liberal opposition implored the government to further extend the temporary layoff period, Milobar said. The NDP government previously extended the notice period to 16 weeks from 13 weeks for businesses facing financial hardships due to COVID-19.
Under B.C.’s Employee Standards Act, any layoff longer than 13 weeks in any 20-week period is considered a permanent layoff and employers must pay severance to qualifying employees.
Milobar said the premier has indicated there won’t be another extension.
“The best we could get out of him is that he will talk to business groups who have been asking for this since April,” Milobar said.
Stone believes there will be mass bankruptcies and job losses in B.C. if the government doesn’t extend the provision, noting “tens of thousands of businesses” in the province, including in Kamloops, would be mandated to pay out severance.