B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong.

B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong.

Budget surplus hits $2.24 billion, but B.C. braces for schools settlement

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B.C.’s projected budget surplus has climbed further to an estimated $2.24 billion.

Finance Minister Mike de Jong released that number as part of a generally upbeat second quarter financial update Tuesday.

He cautioned B.C. is bracing for significantly higher education budget costs in the wake of a Supreme Court of Canada ruling in favour of the B.C. Teachers Federation on classroom size and composition requirements.

De Jong declined to provide an estimate.

“It would be presumptive on my part and the government’s part to lay out our figure or unilaterally state what we believe that figure will be,” he said.

“The fiscal plan is healthy and we are in a position to accommodate the results of the negotiation that is now underway.”

Asked if the improved budget could allow B.C. to further raise social assistance rates, de Jong said that will be a priority, but cautioned there’s no certainty a large government surplus will repeat each year.

“The landscape is littered with the carcasses of governments past and the deficits they incurred because assumptions were made that a present set of circumstances would repeat in perpetuity.”

He also noted that public sector workers will be receiving nearly one per cent more pay over and above their contractual wage increases under B.C.’s economic stability mandate dividend, because the province’s growth has exceeded benchmarks. The latest 0.35 per cent dividend, resulting from 3.3 per cent economic growth for B.C. in 2015, takes effect in February and is on top of a 0.45 per cent bump a year earlier.

B.C. has seen an increase of 71,400 jobs so far this year, up 3.1 per cent as of October.

De Jong was also asked to respond to the potential that U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s administration may start a trade war.

More protectionist policy from American leaders would also hurt the U.S. at a time when that country needs more B.C. lumber to accommodate growth projections, de Jong said.

No advertising campaign is contemplated at this time, he said, but he did not rule out strenuous lobbying by B.C.

“We are going to have to ramp up in a strategic way to ensure that Americans themselves understand there’s a price to be paid for protectionism and that it is not just a price you inflict upon others.”

He noted the U.S. forest industry has already fired the first shot against B.C. softwood lumber imports, with a petition that could lead to an initial ruling as early as spring.

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