Finance Minister Mike de Jong shows how income and property transfer taxes (at left) were higher than expected in the first part of the year.

Retail, real estate help keep B.C. in black

Forest fire season tops $300 million in costs, but higher income tax, property transfer tax make up for it

VICTORIA – The B.C. government is on track for a surplus of $277 million for the fiscal year ending next spring, despite a costly forest fire season and a continued decline in revenues from  natural gas and other resource revenues.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong released results from the first quarter of the year Tuesday, showing the surplus down $7 million from the budget forecasts made in February. It showed revenues higher than expected from income taxes and property transfer tax, as well as continued rapid growth in retail sales and sales tax revenues.

Government spending is now forecast to be $381 million more than the budget, with costs of this year’s forest fire season above $300 million. That’s more than last year, but still below the total for 2009 and B.C.’s worst fire year, 2003.

With similar surpluses expected for the next two years, de Jong said the government has room for some “modest” spending increases on programs. But the main emphasis remains paying down operating debt left from the deficit years that followed the financial crisis of 2008.

De Jong said the current trend would see operating debt paid off by 2019-20, for the first time since the 1970s. Capital debt for major construction continues to grow, but not as quickly as the size of the economy.

The B.C. economy continues to add employment, but less than one half of one per cent per year. NDP finance critic Carole James said manufacturing and forestry are struggling while the B.C. Liberal government maintains its focus on natural gas exports.

“We’re almost at the four-year mark for the premier’s jobs plan, and here we are, continuing to see less than half of the number they predicted in terms of job growth,” James said.

The opposition has focused on the government’s reduced spending on post-secondary education, and charging adults $550 per credit for high school courses they take after graduation, in order to qualify for further studies.

“Now’s the time that we should be providing support for people who want to retrain, who want to go back to school, who want to look for for those job opportunities,” James said.