British Columbia·Analysis

B.C. budget: LNG dreams downplayed as government preaches patience

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong will unveil the budget on Tuesday, his third since taking over the job in 2012 and the expectations for excitement are low.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong will unveil budget at the B.C. Legislature on Tuesday

Christy Clark made LNG promises a cornerstone of her last election campaign. But will it be a focus in the budget?

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong is set to unveil the budget on Tuesday — his third since taking over the job in 2012 — and the expectations for excitement are low. De Jong has called this a budget focused on “discipline and prudence," while also being a framework for paying down the debt.

“In every other jurisdiction in the country the news is growing deficit, growing debt,” de Jong said. “Here in British Columbia we probably have the only balanced budget, the only surplus. I take that as a compliment because it has become the standard here in BC.”

What British Columbians will carefully be watching is when the province’s big bet on liquefied natural gas (LNG) — the premier's hope is for tens of thousands of new jobs — will pay off.

If the throne speech was any indication of what is coming next, which it often is, the government is downplaying LNG. In February 2012, Premier Christy Clark raved about the industry’s potential, promising thousands of new jobs and $20 billion in investments.

LNG price drop

But the price of LNG on the global market is dropping, something de Jong is expected to downplay on Tuesday.

“I have never been under any illusions that this would happen on a precise time line and one set by me or any other political leader,” de Jong said. “I still believe LNG is poised because that is what proponents tell us”

De Jong may be patient, but patience from voters could be wearing thin. Questions are being asked about when the payoff will come to an industry that was a huge part of the Liberal’s re-election strategy.

It's unclear whether Tuesday's budget will bring any answers to those questions, said Michael Prince, University of Victoria political scientist.

“The government is maybe a year shy of putting a test to their hopes and dreams,” Prince said. “It doesn’t need to be too heavy in this budget. But the government does need to send a message the province is open for business. The province is using fanciful rhetoric over being debt free and that goal looks more realistic not in 2020, but 2035.”

What's in it for me?

The instinct heading into Tuesday’s budget is: What’s in it for me? That’s a question the B.C. Liberals are going to have a hard time answering this time around. Prince, like most observers, expects this budget to be more full of “self satisfied messaging” rather than tax breaks or new programs.

One possibility is a change to social assistance for single mothers on welfare who are also receiving child support.

The current model is complicated, but basically for every dollar a single mother gets from child support, she gets a dollar less from social assistance. The new policy expected in Tuesday’s budget will change that, allowing mothers in this situation to keep both support payments and social assistance.

“There was no mention in the throne speech of this,” said Prince. “The government is still arm-wrestling about how it will be paid for and how much the mom should get to keep.”

The bottom line? Don't expect any of the big ticket items found in a pre-election budget, and don't hold your breath for any firm answers on the much predicted, yet-to-be-delivered LNG boom.