B.C. finance minister crafts 'very challenging' provincial budget, vows it will be balanced
Few surprises expected Tuesday as NDP government leaves little room for new spending
B.C.'s finance minister is tempering expectations ahead of what is shaping up to be a budget that will likely be heavy on reiterated promises and light on new spending.
"There are always more priorities than there are resources for," Carole James told reporters Thursday at the legislature. "It continues to be a very challenging budget to put together."
The most challenging part of all: keeping the books balanced amid a shrinking surplus mirrored by an economy that continues to soften.
Last week's throne speech, a blueprint of the government's agenda for the year ahead, largely amounted to a recap of what the NDP has already done — a signal of what's anticipated to be a stay-the-course budget this week, too.
"There is no question, and it's no surprise looking at the throne speech, that we're going to continue to focus on the priority areas that are important to us as government," James said.
The devil will be in the details, particularly when it comes to ICBC and how the province's sweeping changes shifting to a no-fault insurance model will translate into projected savings.
It's the most drastic measure yet in trying to douse the flames of the notorious dumpster fire that is ICBC, which continues to lose money.
"You've heard me express my frustration with the money we've had to put from the crisis dealing with ICBC that could've been spent on programs and services," James said.
Certainly we're seeing some moderation of growth in the economy, which makes it a more challenging year — there's no question about that.- B.C. Finance Minister Carole James
The other challenge that's been looming for some time is the economy. B.C.'s growth forecast went from 2.4 per cent last February to 1.7 per cent in September. At the same time, the projected budget surplus also narrowed to $148 million in November from $274 million last February.
"Certainly we're seeing some moderation of growth in the economy, which makes it a more challenging year — there's no question about that," James said.
'They don't want to rock the boat'
Political watchers aren't surprised this year's policy roadmap has so far included few twists and turns.
"I think some people were looking for bigger commitments on some of their key issues — in particular, housing and child care — but they have been moving slowly on certain expensive promises," said SFU political scientist Sanjay Jeram.
The NDP was elected on a promise of $10-a-day daycare provincewide and, so far, it's a promise that remains a prototype in the form of pilot programs in select areas of B.C. The throne speech said "work on universal child care continues" and that government will work to increase the number of spaces.
The NDP also campaigned on a yearly $400 renters rebate, which has since been scrapped. So what can renters expect instead? In the throne speech, the government vowed to "relieve them of the burden of fighting unfair or illegal renovictions on their own."
It's anticipated the budget won't do much to quiet groups like teachers who have been vocal about their demands for more funding amid contract talks.
"It makes sense given their surplus over that past year has come in a lot smaller than they first predicted," Jeram said.
While a steady-as-she-goes budget may not be exciting, it may be the mark of a government that wants to keep its relatively high popularity.
"They don't want to rock the boat," said Jeram. "If [the NDP's] core support was dwindling in response to unfilled promises, you might see a revamping of commitments."
And so the NDP is likely to put forward a low-risk budget with hopes of maintaining momentum; critically important in case of any potential snap election.
"One of the ways they probably see a path to re-election is through maintaining this growing credibility they have when it comes to showing restraint."