BC Views: B.C. back in black, deep in debt

The biggest fabrication of last year’s election was the “debt free B.C.” slogan on the side of Premier Christy Clark’s campaign bus.

When the audited public accounts confirmed a $353 million surplus for the last fiscal year, B.C. Liberal political staff were quick to remind reporters of the NDP’s main theme from last year’s election campaign.

Pages of election quotes from almost every NDP MLA were waiting to be distributed. It was a “bogus budget,” one of the more polite tags applied to the government’s pre-election fiscal plan.

“It underestimates the costs in a whole bunch of ministries and we’re going to have to review that because all of the decisions that we propose in our platform will have to be implemented,” said then-leader Adrian Dix, describing the NDP’s plans to tax and spend more.

Skeena MLA Robin Austin targeted health care in the budget debate: “Bearing in mind that our population is actually increasing, bearing in mind that our population is aging, I think it’s very unrealistic to think we can actually limit health care expenditures to 2.7 per cent.”

As it turned out, health care spending grew by just over two per cent. It still went up by $360 million from the previous year, but after annual increases of six or seven per cent had become the norm, this is quite an achievement. New agreements remain to be negotiated with doctors and nurses, so we’re unlikely to see the same cost control results for the current year.

Ottawa’s health care transfer payment formula has changed, and increases are to be capped at three per cent a year by 2016, so this is the kind of spending restraint all provinces are expected to produce.

Education was the only other ministry to receive significant extra funding last year, up $299 million despite continuing enrolment decline. Like health, the education budget goes up every year, and these increases, along with strong student performance results, expose the rhetoric of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation about a cash-starved system for what it is.

But the biggest fabrication of last year’s election was the “debt free B.C.” slogan emblazoned on the side of Premier Christy Clark’s campaign bus.

The public accounts confirm that the province’s total debt rose to just over $60 billion, the latest of a series of increases since 2008. The much-touted balanced budget is on the operating side, while the province continues to pile up debt to pay for the Port Mann mega-project, hospitals, schools and other big infrastructure.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong emphasized the difference between capital and operating expenditures.

“We’re borrowing to build as opposed to paying for the groceries,” he said.

“Debt free B.C.” was not an outright misrepresentation, merely one of the most far-fetched promises ever delivered in the history of B.C. politics. The legislature is to convene in October so the B.C. Liberals can pass a taxation framework for the nascent liquefied natural gas industry, which the government hopes will generate the revenues to ultimately pay off the province’s $60-billion mortgage.

Meanwhile there is more capital debt ahead. The cabinet is expected to green-light the Site C dam on the Peace River this fall, a decade-long project estimated to cost $8 billion.  Along with the public accounts, the finance ministry released a list of surplus land sales. The sale of 50-odd properties, some of them closed schools, netted the provincial treasury about $310 million, which accounts for most of the surplus.

Was this “selling off the family silverware to try and balance the books,” as now-NDP leader John Horgan termed it before the election? It’s certainly not a revenue source to be matched next year.

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