VICTORIA - Finance Minister Mike de Jong says British Columbia's budget surplus is higher than originally forecast, but he's not about to fork over the extra cash to settle the ongoing teachers strike.
De Jong said Tuesday first quarterly financial results show the 2014-2015 budget is forecast to have a $266 million surplus, up $82 million from what was predicted in the budget last February.
Earlier this week, B.C. Teachers Federation president Jim Iker and Opposition New Democrat Leader John Horgan both suggested the government could find more money to settle the strike which has closed public schools since last June.
The quarterly report figures indicate the government has already saved $166 million in education costs since the strike began and the budget's contingency fund, which the government uses in case of emergencies, remains at $300 million.
But de Jong said despite a revenue increase of $515 million, much of that was offset by $433 million in expenses, mostly for fighting wildfires and flood-related emergency programs. The cost of fighting forests fires this year is expected to reach $350 million, when the budget was originally forecast at $63 million.
De Jong rejected outright using the extra budget dollars to resolve the teacher strike on financial and political grounds.
"They really don't care where the money comes from," he said. "I guess I understand that as well. It's my job to care and to ensure we don't agree to provisions that are beyond the affordability of B.C. taxpayers."
De Jong said the union's contract demands would increase taxes by $200 for British Columbians.
"We have an obligation to ensure students receive a solid public-school education," he said. "We have an obligation to ensure that is done in a way that is affordable to taxpayers. We have an obligation to exhaust every possible means of negotiating an agreement and we have a track record with every other public-sector union."
NDP finance critic Carole James called on the government to accept the proposal by the teachers union to send the dispute to binding arbitration.
The government has already rejected binding arbitration, but teachers are voting Wednesday on whether they support plan which would see the teachers return to work if the government agrees to binding arbitration.
"I certainly believe when you look at the contingencies, when you look at the surplus, when you look at the opportunities to actually find a settlement, I think the resources can be found," James said.
De Jong said despite B.C.'s increased surplus forecast, he's slightly downgrading the forecast for economic growth this year to 1.9 per cent, from two per cent. Economic growth is forecast at 2.3 per cent in 2015 and 2.5 per cent in 2016.
He called the growth forecast "stable, not spectacular."
"That's a fair characterization of where we're at," said de Jong. "Growth numbers going forward that place us near the top in Canada but at the 2.3 per cent, 2.5 per cent range, not four per cent."
James said de Jong's suggestion that the numbers indicate stability will not ease burdens on families shouldering hydro, insurance and medical rate increases.
"I heard the finance minister say it's steady as she goes. That things are on track," she said. "I certainly don't think that's the feeling families have. I certainly don't think that's the feeling British Columbians have."