02/18/2015 06:09 EST | Updated 04/20/2015 05:59 EDT

Finance Minister says B.C. budget a good deal for taxpayers despite fee hikes

VICTORIA - Finance Minister Mike de Jong says he hasn't found a magic money tree to hand cash to British Columbians, but he came close to saying his latest balanced budget is the next best thing.

At a chamber of commerce lunch Wednesday, de Jong said he pleads guilty to raising medical services premiums to partially offset rising health-care costs.

When it comes to rising ferry fares, he said there aren't many options, other than raising taxes or cutting service.

"We have to be mature," he said. "We have to be realistic."

De Jong's budget projects a surplus of $284 million for 2015-2016, marking the province's third-consecutive balanced budget. B.C. will likely be the only jurisdiction in Canada to balance its budget this year, he said.

The Opposition New Democrats said de Jong's budget deserts the middle class by doing nothing to stem rising hydro, ferry, medical and insurance rates, while dropping a two-per-cent tax on high-income earners worth about $230 million a year.

"If you're in the wealthiest two per cent income bracket and you earn over $150,000, you're going to share in a $230 million tax cut by the year-end without even asking for it," NDP finance critic Carole James said in the legislature. "This budget says everything about this government's lack of support for modest and middle-income families."

While de Jong outlined details of Tuesday's surplus budget in Victoria, Premier Christy Clark was at a chamber lunch in Surrey, defending her government's decision to use much of the budget's $879 million surplus to pay down debt.

"The very first thing that we heard from people was, 'why don't you spend it,'" said Clark. "Why don't you ... make a bigger government, spend more money. And my answer to that is, what about the future? What about our kids?"

James said BC Hydro rates have increased 74 per cent since 2001 when the Liberals were first elected, and they are set to rise again for the next three years, at least. Insurance Corp. of B.C. rates could rise up to 6.7 per cent this year and ferry fares are rising almost four per cent in April, James said.

Medical services premiums rose four per cent last month.

De Jong said rising health care costs are a constant challenge for governments across Canada. He said B.C.'s health care budget has increased to $18 billion from $7 billion when the Liberals were first elected in 2001.

He said despite rising fee and licence costs, B.C. taxpayers earning $122,000 or less pay $10,037 in income taxes, while Quebec taxpayers pay $18,290.

"I get the argument that says some of our fees go up, fair enough, but they haven't gone up $8,000," said de Jong. "We are unapologetic for the fact that we have sought to achieve the most competitive tax framework in all of Canada."