One of the most pressing issues facing B.C. Premier John Horgan’s government when the legislature resumes sitting March 1 is its inability to provide grants of up to $30,000 to keep small businesses going until the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions are eased.
Tourism businesses are eligible for up to $15,000 more, because travel restrictions have devastated their ability to operate, but eligibility rules have prevented many businesses from applying. And almost a year after borrowing the money was unanimously approved by MLAs, the business portion remains mostly unspent as businesses continue to fold.
Horgan announced the program days before calling the October election, with $300 million allocated from a $5 billion emergency fund approved by the legislature last March. In December the Small and Medium Sized Business Recovery Grants program was overhauled by incoming Jobs Minister Ravi Kahlon to make it easier to qualify.
As of Feb. 18 the ministry reported 9,500 applications were in progress for only $21 million in grants, with a deadline of March 31 for the remaining $279 million. Due to the accounting rules of the legislature, any money not spent by the end of the fiscal year is automatically returned to the treasury to pay down the province’s fast-growing debt.
The program deadline can’t be extended because of that rule, Horgan said, but more changes may be made to get the rest of the money out to struggling businesses, with as many as one third of owners saying their operations won’t survive the pandemic.
“The challenge is not criteria,” Horgan said. “The challenge is we are not having enough people asking for the money.”
Interim B.C. Liberal leader Shirley Bond said there is no doubt of the need, and Horgan’s suggestion that even more changes are required is an admission of “how badly this program has been botched.”
“To suggest it might be retooled again?” Bond said. “Since the moment this program was rolled out, it has been a mess. Now we’re finding a mad scramble to try to get dollars out the door.”
The original program required businesses to show they lost at least 50 per cent of their revenue in each month of pandemic restrictions. With the December changes, businesses in operation for 18 months were allowed to apply, down from the original limit of three years, and an additional grant for tourism-related businesses was increased from a maximum of $10,000 to $15,000.
The 2021-22 B.C. budget has been delayed until April, and Horgan said there will be further assistance, including for businesses that are too large to qualify for the current grant program.