Finance Minister Mike de Jong presents the audited public accounts at the B.C. legislature Tuesday

B.C. budget surplus $353 million

The B.C. government finished the fiscal year in March with a surplus of $353 million by keeping overall spending growth below one per cent

The B.C. government finished the fiscal year in March with a surplus of $353 million by keeping overall spending growth below one per cent, according to audited public accounts released Tuesday.

It’s the first official surplus budget for B.C. since the 2008-09 recession, and a bigger surplus than what was promised by the B.C. Liberal government in last year’s election campaign.

Total program spending increased only 0.4% during the year, which Finance Minister Mike de Jong credited mainly to a hiring freeze and restrictions on discretionary spending in ministries. Health care spending rose $360 million over the previous year, which was more than $500 million lower than the forecast in the government’s post-election budget. Education spending was up $299 million, while spending in natural resource ministries fell $337 million.

The province stayed in the black despite taxation revenues coming in $402 million less than the budget forecast. Natural resource revenues to the province exceeded forecasts by $109 million.

NDP finance critic Mike Farnworth said the surplus budget was achieved “by picking the pockets of hard-working British Columbians” with higher fees and increases to BC Hydro, ICBC and other rates. Farnworth said the public accounts show B.C. residents are paying an extra $300 million a year in fees and licences, not counting the latest increases to BC Hydro and Medical Services Plan rates.

De Jong noted that the province’s total debt continues to rise, topping $60.8 billion including debt of BC Hydro and other Crown agencies.

“We are borrowing to build instead of paying for the groceries,” de Jong said of the additional debt, which includes $3.2 billion for schools, highways, transit and hospitals.

B.C.’s debt stands at 18.2% of gross domestic product, about half of the level of Ontario and the federal government’s debt-to-GDP ratio.