VICTORIA – Premier Christy Clark and her ministers are fending off calls to increase spending on pressing social priorities as the financial picture brightens for the B.C. government.
With the bills tallied for the first half of the fiscal year, the province is forecasting a surplus of $444 million by next spring, about twice as much as was projected in last February's budget. Finance Minister Mike de Jong said the improvement was helped by a strengthening U.S. economy, despite commodity slumps that have produced declining lumber and coal revenues.
Both de Jong and Clark said their highest priority is to repay about $5 billion in debt accumulated during a string of deficits before the budget was balanced in 2013.
"Like any family that's been through tough times, the first thing you need to do when you get back to finding a job and making an income again, is to pay off your credit cards," Clark said in an interview. "We're going to pay off these credit cards that got charged up after 2008 pretty heavily."
NDP children and family critic Carole James said the government has achieved surpluses with the help of increases to medical premiums, ferry fares, BC Hydro rate increases and other charges, and it's time to put some back to the people who need it. Her party has been pressing for removal of a clawback of child support payments from social assistance and disability recipients, an estimated annual cost of $17 million.
"It's not simply people who are the recipients of child maintenance dollars, but in fact all British Columbians see how unfair it is that that money is clawed back from children," James said.
Another priority is to increase post-secondary education funds, which are looking at one of a series of budget cuts next year despite the government's high-profile jobs plan, James said.
Jobs Minister Shirley Bond, meanwhile, turned away calls from retiring B.C. Federation of Labour president Jim Sinclair to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.
After a series of increases brought the B.C. minimum up to $10.25 by 2012, Bond said the issue is being monitored, along with factors like youth unemployment and inflation.
"You're certainly not going to see us move to $15 an hour in the short term," she said.