Surplus enough for new B.C. Liberal promises, de Jong says

Financial update released early before government falls

The B.C. government finished the fiscal year this spring with a $2.8 billion surplus, enough to absorb the Port Mann bridge debt, raise welfare rates and cover all the other promises in its throne speech, Finance Minister Mike de Jong says.

De Jong released a summary of the 2016-17 provincial finances Tuesday, without waiting for the Auditor General to sign off, on what is likely to be his last full day as minister. B.C.’s financial performance is far better than expected and allows the B.C. Liberals to adopt a range of new spending plans lifted from the B.C. NDP and Green Party platforms, de Jong said.

Revenue sources that have driven previous surpluses continued to increase, particularly income tax, due to employment growth that de Jong described as the fastest since 1974. Retail sales and exports continued their increase this spring, and exports of wood products and coal rebounded this spring.

De Jong was visibly frustrated as he described the nation-leading economic performance that he expects to turn over to the alliance of the B.C. NDP and Green Party after a confidence vote on the throne speech, expected Thursday. He acknowledged that the new spending plans in the throne speech would have helped the B.C. Liberals in the recent election, and pondered the 200 additional votes that could have given the B.C. Liberals their fifth majority.

NDP finance critic Carole James said the early release of the province’s public accounts is another political tactic by the B.C. Liberals. She said she would wait for Auditor General Carol Bellringer’s report before commenting in detail on the results, but noted de Jong was saying only a few weeks ago that cancelling tolls on the Port Mann and Golden Ears bridges in the Lower Mainland would threaten the province’s AAA credit rating.

De Jong’s update showed the transfer of $4 billion in debt from a toll-based corporation to public debt still leaves the province’s debt situation better than it was in 2015-16, and ratings agencies would not downgrade B.C.’s credit rating as a result.

Green leader Andrew Weaver said he is pleased to see the improved financial performance, but “releasing this information out of political calculation is inappropriate.”

Bellringer’s audited version of the public accounts is expected by mid-July.

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