VICTORIA — The NDP government’s botched $300-million grant program for small and medium-sized business will expire as scheduled at the end of next month, Premier John Horgan said Thursday.
But the New Democrats are scrambling to get the mostly unspent balance of the economic recovery fund out the door before the March 31 end of the fiscal year.
“We won’t extend this bundle of money,” Horgan told reporters during his weekly news conference. “This program will expire because we appropriated the money through the legislature to expire at the end of this fiscal year.”
The premier explained that because of the accounting rules for provincial budgets, “we need to spend the money by March 31 or it goes back in to servicing the provincial debt — which is not a bad thing but we want to make sure we get the money into people’s hands.”
The government reported Thursday it paid out only about $20 million of the economic recovery grants, leaving the remainder of the $300 million fund untapped.
Horgan denied that the main obstacle was the too-onerous criteria for applicants.
“The challenge is not criteria,” he insisted. “The challenge is we are not having enough people asking for the money.”
But in almost the same breath, he admitted that the government would be putting new criteria in place in the last weeks in March.
Earlier this month, he defended the existing criteria as necessary to protect public funds.
“We couldn’t just leave a bag of cash on the street corner and say, businesses, come and take what you need,” he told broadcaster Howie Reimer on CHNL radio in Kamloops. “We have to have protocols and procedures in place to protect the taxpayer and to make sure the money goes to those that need it.”
The premier’s claim about not enough applications was contradicted earlier this week by his own jobs minister, Ravi Kahlon.
More than 6,000 businesses have applied for the non-repayable grants of $30,000 to $45,000, Kahlon told the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade Tuesday.
Kahlon credited a change in criteria that he announced in late December, shortly after he was appointed jobs minister in a postelection cabinet makeover.
But Kahlon ducked a plea from the CEO of the Board of Trade, Bridgitte Anderson, for the program to be extended beyond the end of March.
He said on becoming minister he met with tourism and small business representatives to ask what could be done to make the grant program more accessible.
“There was a whole list of things, suggestions for us. We did them all, “ said Kahlon. “Just over 1,000 applications came in before the change. Since the changes, 6,000 new applications came in, so I’m optimistic that will continue. We’re going to continue to monitor over the month and we’ll see where it goes from there.”
In a posting on social media Thursday afternoon, Kahlon said the government “will continue to consider adjustments to the program, including extending the deadline.”
But Horgan said the government is looking at ways to expedite the process so the grants can be paid out before the end of the fiscal year.
“We are working with the accountants — asking the accountants to contact the companies they work for and advise them that they have access to these resources,” the premier said.
”We’re looking at how we can get those dollars out the door by the 31st of March. I’m confident we’ll be able to do that.”
Horgan’s reference to getting the money “out the door” is not without ironies, given the way this program came into being in the first place.
He announced the $300-million Small and Medium Business Recovery Grant on Sept. 17, four days before he called the snap election.
The money was part of $1.5 billion in pandemic recovery funding approved unanimously by all parties in the legislature during a rushed one-day session on March 23.
The New Democrats, in the cynicism that characterized their run-up to the election call, sat on the money for six months, then packaged it up as Stronger B.C., the first plank in their election platform.
But from the outset, reporters wondered if the money would be on hold as soon as an election was called and the public service went into caretaker mode.
Not at all, Horgan insisted. “The job of implementing this has been done,” he assured reporters. “The monies are approved, ratified and they are going out the door as quickly as possible.”
They did not. Five weeks of premier and cabinet preoccupied in a self-serving election campaign. Another five weeks to count the votes, reorganize the government and appoint a new cabinet. Three more weeks for the new jobs minister to get a handle on the needed changes.
Not until Dec. 21 did Kahlon loosen the criteria on the grants. Another month passed before his ministry admitted that only $10 million had been granted to businesses in the first four months of the program
Then came Horgan’s admission this week that the government was still trying to figure out how to dispense almost $300 million in grants that were supposedly ready to go out the door the day he called the election.
Given the pure guff that has characterized his pronouncements on the recovery program, perhaps we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he’ll resort to leaving bags of cash on the street corner.