B.C. will likely be the only province in Canada to report a balanced budget for the current year and project surpluses for the next three years, Finance Minister Mike de Jong says.
In a briefing for reporters on what to expect when the annual budget is presented Feb. 17, de Jong said the surplus for the current year will be larger than the $444 million forecast in November. Corporate and personal income tax has been stronger than expected, but there is no certainty that will continue into the new fiscal year that begins April 1.
The second straight surplus after billions in deficits the previous four years will be used to pay down debt, but there is some room for helping poorer people, de Jong said. He hinted that this may include a change to the long-standing practice of deducting spousal child support payments from social assistance and disability payments to single parents.
"There are some areas where we believe there have been pressures on the programming side," de Jong said. "We have a little more ability to deal with them and relieve some of that pressure, to assist people in greatest need."
NDP house leader Mike Farnworth said he is hopeful the child support clawback policy will be changed after more than a year of protest by the opposition. And he said the government isn't telling the whole story about balancing the budget using "tax increases by another name.
"You're going to see higher Medical Services Plan premiums, higher ICBC rates, we're already seeing higher fees for camping," Farnworth said.
The next budget will also provide tax relief for the wealthiest B.C. residents, as a two-year increase on incomes more than $150,000 a year comes to an end. De Jong imposed the 2.1 per cent hike in his pre-election budget in 2013, after then-NDP leader Adrian Dix promised a similar move to help balance the books.
The recent plunge in oil prices has had a major impact on revenues to Alberta, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland, but B.C. has largely escaped that due to continued gas production but little oil from B.C. petroleum fields.
De Jong emphasized that with the continued glut of shale gas produced across North America, it remains an urgent priority to develop liquefied natural gas exports to Asia before B.C. revenues fall further for lack of sales.