09/27/2012 01:25 EDT | Updated 12/07/2012 04:55 EST

Adrian Dix Speech To UBCM: Balanced Budget Law Should Go

VICTORIA - NDP Leader Adrian Dix says if he's elected premier, he'll consider getting rid of British Columbia's balanced-budget legislation.

Dix said Thursday he doesn't like the Liberal government's budget law, saying it's better to have the goal of balancing the budget rather than having a law that has to be repealed every time the books are inconveniently in the red.

"We've seen over the past four years it's kind of a Monty Python sketch," he said. "You know, we have a balanced-budget law and we never balance the budget.

"We haven't had a balanced budget this term, so I'd rather have a balanced budget than balanced-budget laws."

Dix made his balanced-budget comments to reporters following a speech to municipal politicians at the annual Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

The Liberals brought in their balanced-budget legislation in 2001 and amended it in 2009 to permit two deficit budgets. The government delivered balanced budgets between the fiscal years 2004-2005 and 2008-2009.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong said he's concerned one of Dix's first political promises involves getting rid of a law that seeks to keep the province's finances in line.

"It's troubling," said de Jong.

"Even before being in a position to potentially govern, Mr. Dix and the NDP are saying those rudimentary rules of not spending more than you take in shouldn't apply to an NDP government."

He said he was also concerned Dix never put forward any plans on how he would enable B.C.'s economy to grow.

Earlier this month, de Jong delivered a quarterly report that included an increased deficit forecast due to huge declines in natural gas revenues.

De Jong said his government is sticking to its amended budget law that calls for balanced books in 2013-14, but he added it wasn't going to be easy.

The province has announced a government-wide hiring freeze and plans to curtail spending.

Dix said the goal of an NDP government under his leadership would be to balance the books, but governments need to consider revenues, which can fluctuate drastically, as is currently occurring with natural gas.

Economist Helmut Pastrick said balanced-budget laws serve as benchmarks for governments, but there are many other factors and variables involved in budget making that make rigid predictions difficult.

Pastrick, the chief economist at B.C.'s Central 1 Credit Union, said previous government's have managed to table surplus budgets without balanced-budget laws. He said government's don't set out to table deficit budgets with or without balanced-budget laws in place.

"Most of the electorate would view responsible fiscal management as a desirable state of affairs," he said. "A balanced budget (law), I suppose, imposes some discipline on that. But I still think it comes down to more fundamental questions that have to be asked as to the nature and the role of government in the economy and society."

The B.C. branch of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation pounced on Dix's plans to repeal the balanced-budget law, suggesting it could signal the start of B.C.'s return to the deficit spending of the 1990s under former NDP governments.

"Any suggestion to make it easier for politicians to put us further into debt should send shivers up taxpayers’ spines," said Jordan Bateman, the federation's B.C. spokesman in a statement. "NDP MLAs have talked about tax hikes, spending sprees and borrowing money—three things B.C. just can’t afford."

He said the current legislation docks cabinet ministers up to 20 per cent of their salaries for failing to balance the budget and meeting ministry goals.

The NDP leader told the UBCM delegates he wants to take name-calling and personality issues out of B.C. politics, but he started off his speech with a jab at the Liberals for not holding a fall session.

"It's great that MLAs can get together in the fall," said Dix as he pointed out the many NDP MLAs who were in the audience. "The legislature isn't sitting in the fall, and I think that's too bad."

He drew applause from municipal leaders for saying they deserve more control over location and development of mountain resorts and over whether to accept public-private partnerships in their communities.

He also told the packed room that British Columbia should have more say on the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline project but rapped what he called the government's late interest in the mega-project.

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said the Liberals balanced the budget between 2003 and 2008.

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