Premier Christy Clark had hoped to head into this spring's election running on a new provincial budget infused with billions from a thriving liquefied natural gas industry. She will have to settle for something far less.
On Tuesday, Ms. Clark's Liberal government tabled its final fiscal plan before this May's provincial showdown and, as expected, it had a bit of something for everyone: corporate and personal tax and fee cuts, health and educating funding hikes, and a range of other spending increases that allows the government to ingratiate itself to an array of constituents.
Make no mistake: this is a document most provincial governments would still be thrilled on which to campaign. For starters, it marks the fifth consecutive balanced budget the Liberals will have submitted, a stretch of first-rate fiscal stewardship unparalleled in the country. The province's debt-to-GDP ratio is 16.1 per cent – which compares to 40.3 per cent for Ontario and 48 per cent for Quebec. It is the only province in the country with a Triple A credit rating.
As Finance Minister Mike de Jong noted, this is not just about holding bragging rights. The difference in that credit rating and those debt figures compared to those of a province like Ontario amounts to a savings of about $2-billion a year in interest costs. That is a lot of program spending.
The government deserves plaudits, as well, for continuing to diversify not just its economy but its trade markets, too. For instance, only 53.9 per cent of B.C.'s trade is now with the U.S., compared to 86.3 per cent for Alberta and 80.9 per cent for Ontario. Those percentages take on a more ominous hue when you consider the protectionist trade winds currently emanating from south of the border. Meantime, B.C. created the most jobs in Canada last year as well.
All of this is important. The B.C. Liberals are a coalition of conservative and liberal-minded voters. To keep the conservative wing happy, the Clark government has had to demonstrate it knows how to run an economy, or at least, knows how not to ruin one. It has taken some heat along the way for some of the more ruthless spending decisions it has made in the name of balancing budgets. This has been an important aspect of maintaining the support of conservatives in the province. But the Premier knows she needs to appeal to voters beyond that group as well, especially ones in the mushy ideological middle.
She believes this budget does that. Others may not.
In the weeks leading up to it, Ms. Clark hinted that a significant tax cut was coming. It ended up being a somewhat underwhelming reduction to MSP premiums. It doesn't take effect until next January, while the announced small business corporate tax cut occurs immediately – which perhaps speaks to the Liberals' priorities. The government has significantly boosted spending in the ministries of education and children and family development, but in both cases it was virtually forced into it; in the instance of education by the courts and in child protection by relentless public criticism and damaging reports.
This is not a government that could in any way be described as warm or sensitive.
Of course, this has always been where the Opposition New Democrats have tried to set themselves apart from the Liberals – mostly to little avail. But they will try again.
The New Democrats intend on making a $10-a-day daycare strategy a centrepiece of its election platform, something the Liberals have no interest in touching. The Liberals will also face criticism from the Opposition for not raising welfare rates in this budget, maintaining a hardened position on this line item it has held for a decade. The NDP will almost certainly make other choices on the social welfare side of the ledger that the Liberals resisted in this budget.
At the end of the day, however, the Liberals insist that the upcoming election will be fought on the same fundamental voter concerns as the last one: which party is best for creating jobs and growing the economy, and which party can best be trusted to navigate the often tricky and perilous economic times in which we live.
Ms. Clark is betting this budget, and the four that preceded it, make the case that that party is hers.