B.C. to post budget surplus, but spending not on agenda, says Finance Minister

VICTORIA – British Columbia’s government will use its higher-than-forecasted budget surplus to pay down debt, and Finance Minister Mike de Jong says he may even address controversial social-service clawbacks.

De Jong said Thursday that the budget he’ll table Feb. 17 will include a surplus higher than the $444 million he forecast last fall, although he declined to reveal specifics.

Balancing the books and recording surpluses gives the government the modest ability to address some initiatives, he added.

“The first call on the surpluses is to pay down that amount, the several billions of dollars, that we borrowed on behalf of British Columbians to pay for the services through those even-more-difficult years,” said De Jong.

He hinted the budget could address the clawbacks to social assistance payments received by single-parent families.

Those clawbacks drew fire from the Opposition New Democrats, social service groups and single parents who demanded the government stop deducting support payments from income and disability-assistance cheques.

Premier Christy Clark said in a year-end interview with The Canadian Press that budget surplus projections could result in some social-assistance top-ups this year, but she didn’t promise to end the clawbacks.

Nelson-Creston New Democrat Michelle Mungall spearheaded a private member’s bill to end the clawbacks, saying they create hardships for many families receiving social assistance or disability payments.

The government’s all-party finance committee recommended a review of the program in its annual report to the Finance Ministry.

De Jong said the government still projects surplus budgets for the next three years, but they will be lower than this year’s surplus number.

He said uncertainty in world energy markets will play a role in B.C.’s economic health.

“While the reduction in crude prices is generally not expected to have a significant negative effect on the province, it has increased uncertainty as low oil prices are accompanied with downward pressure on other commodity prices, including natural gas,” said a statement Thursday from 14-member Economic Forecast Council, which predicts economic growth to increase by 2.8 per cent in 2016.

De Jong said B.C. will likely be the only province in Canada to table a surplus budget.