VICTORIA - British Columbia politicians return to the legislature Tuesday for a 12-week session highlighted by a budget that is the "envy" of all other Canadian provinces, said Finance Minister Mike de Jong.
But the Opposition NDP is predicting a budget that will pinch away funds from the taxpayer through hikes in premiums and fees.
De Jong, who's also the Liberal government's house leader, said the budget he'll present on Feb. 17 includes a surplus higher than the $444 million he forecasted last fall, but the extra cash still doesn't bring huge opportunities for spending.
While other Canadian governments are grappling just to cover costs, de Jong said the B.C. government intends to devote some of the surplus to paying down debt incurred during the global economic downturn dating back to 2008.
"Fiscally, we are virtually the envy of every other province," said de Jong.
During the downturn, B.C. ran four consecutive deficit budgets. The provincial debt is now at about $61 billion.
De Jong said B.C. is likely the only province in the Canada tabling a balanced budget this year, an accomplishment he attributed to economic diversity and spending discipline.
"The difficulty in achieving balance and a surplus is revealed in the fact virtually no one else is able to do it," he said. "At the same time that doesn't leave us a lot of room to provide additional tax relief."
New Democrat House Leader Mike Farnworth said the Opposition will comb through the budget to find what it suspects will be increases in fees and premiums.
"Apart from the budget bills, we don't seem to get a sense of any real direction from the government right now," he said.
Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon will read the speech from the throne on Tuesday outlining the government agenda for the spring sitting.
De Jong said the government will introduce up to 20 pieces of legislation that will remove impediments to growth, modernize statutes and add to the liquefied natural gas legislation adopted last fall.
The government's LNG legislation set an income tax structure and environmental standards for the industry, which the government is banking on providing massive economic revenues, but has yet to see one of the 18 prospective proposals to build LNG export facilities reach start phase.
De Jong also suggested there may be some funding to address the controversial social-services clawbacks that have drawn protests from single-parent families and those who receive disability payments.
The government routinely deducts support payments from monthly assistance cheques, which the NDP and other groups have said takes away funds from those who most need the funds.
Farnworth said de Jong's hints about the social-service claw backs are long overdue.
"We've been going at the government now for the last two years on how unfair this is," he said. "Would like to think that after two years of being hammered on this they would do something," he said.