posted Feb 20, 2015 at 10:00 AM
Tom Fletcher and Grant Granger
After five years of borrowing to pay for “groceries,” Finance Minister Mike de Jong says provincial budget surpluses this year and in the coming years will largely be used to pay down operating debt.
The provincial budget shows operating debt of $9.4 billion for the year ending in March, declining to $8.4 billion in 2015-16 and falling below $5 billion by 2018. The government has forecast a surplus of $879 million for 2014-15, with a surplus of $284 million to come in 2015-16.
Total provincial debt, including roads, hospitals and other capital projects as well as debt held by BC Hydro and other Crown corporations, grows to more than $70 billion by the end of the province’s three-year fiscal plan.
De Jong said balancing the budget means the province is only borrowing to build assets, and the current spending plan calls for $10.7 billion more in taxpayer-supported debt. One new project is planning funds for the proposed replacement of the George Massey tunnel under the Fraser River.
The minister said the government will increase its investment into education by $576 million over three years – in line with B.C.’s agreement with the Teachers Federation.
“There are certainly increases on the educational services side, to ensure that we are looking after our greatest asset and providing the best possible education and training to young people,” de Jong said.
But New Westminster NDP MLA Judy Darcy was “deeply disappointed” in de Jong for “flatlining” the province’s investment in public education. And on top of that, she noted, the Liberals are telling school districts to find a total of $137 million in savings in their administration budgets.
That will be particularly difficult, she said, for the New Westminster board of education because it is in the midst of repaying an accumulated shortfall totaling nearly $5 million.
“School District 40 is already so stretched,” said Darcy. “Our school district has already done a lot of streamlining over the last few years.”
She said part of the reason New West got into its financial bind was because it didn’t have enough senior staff.
“You need good, serious, highly competent people at high administrative levels in order to ensure the finances are handled properly and the classroom education is handled properly,” said Darcy. “I don’t now how they’re supposed to find more savings.”
Darcy noted last year’s budget called for the business case for the first phase of Royal Columbian Hospital’s redevelopment to be done. This year’s budget said the business plan was complete and still needed to be reviewed before it can go ahead.
“The words on paper have advanced a little bit,” said Darcy, the Opposition health critic. “I was disappointed to see they haven’t said it has already been approved, and that’s an area I’m going to continue to be putting a lot of pressure on the government on.”