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Les Leyne: B.C.'s windfall surplus earmarked for 'storm' ahead

The agenda-setting speech explicitly stated that the $5.7 billion surplus reported last November is a one-off.

Premier David Eby is painting a pessimistic economic forecast and assorted ongoing challenges in the starkest possible terms in order to justify spending as much of B.C.’s current surplus as possible as the election season approaches.

His government’s throne speech on Monday was a collection of broad hints about how the NDP will close out the current fiscal year and open the next one, with his first budget coming later this month. It signals more spending on all fronts to cope with the housing and health crises, crime and the cost of living.

The agenda-setting speech explicitly stated that the $5.7 billion surplus reported last November is a one-off.

“Economists are predicting a global slowdown. Because we are a province that thrives on export and international relationships, this year’s surplus won’t be there next year.”

The government’s news release about the speech referred to “the likely economic storm” that’s expected. The speech itself, while not using that phrase, acknowledged a host of problems facing people that still need to be addressed.

“Food prices are going up. It’s hard to find a doctor. We continue to see mental-health and addiction challenges … housing costs continue to rise… People are working harder than ever. But many feel like they’re just getting by, not getting ahead.”

It’s a pretty grim assessment, considering the NDP has been in power for more than five years. Parts of it read like a stock B.C. Liberal speech. The difference is that the throne speech lays most of the blame for the downsides on “global” forces.

The speech said the government “will put this year’s surplus to work for people — to support them now and for the long term.”

It listed health, housing support for local governments and climate as priority spending areas, along with a renewed emphasis on “addressing the cost of living.”

“By far the biggest source of anxiety for people right now is the rising cost of living.

“There’s too much at stake right now to pull back on supports for people who are only now finding their footing after the pandemic.”

The speech suggested that the surplus that will fuel most of the NDP’s spring agenda arose from earlier government policies. “Putting people at the centre of your government’s choices has resulted in economic growth that allows us to deliver even more.”

It cited child-care investments, careful pandemic management and the highest supports for business in Canada as contributors to the surplus.

But the quarterly report last November that first identified the bonanza surplus pinned most of it on updated income-tax assessments from the Canada Revenue Agency, which always lag behind the budget calendar.

The change this year made for a huge windfall in B.C. and elsewhere, to the point where it is causing consternation in public accounting circles because it upended so many careful budget projections.

The surplus amounts to a fluke that Eby is using to go all-in on appealing programs for “people who work hard and play by the rules.”

Opposition Leader Kevin Falcon earlier reiterated views that the B.C. Liberals will concentrate on — the NDP are great at making announcements, but “they’re terrible at getting results.”

Health-care metrics, opioid deaths and housing indicators are as bad as they have ever been, despite numerous NDP promises, he said.

Falcon said the NDP is being irresponsible by trying to spend more than $5 billion by March 31. “You can see that by the announcements they made that have no detail and that have not been very well thought out.

“I can tell you as a former finance minister, when a government tries to spend that much money in such a short period of time, it does not end well.”

He said it should be returned to struggling families directly, not blown “here, there and everywhere on a poorly thought basis.”

Just So You Know: There’s one intriguing word in the speech that carries a lot of freight, deliberately or otherwise.

Monday’s was the seventh NDP throne speech and every one of them has included a list of commitments to ease the housing crisis. Eby’s version recounted many of them, ticked his own promises from his first week in office and hinted at major new investments to come.

Then the kicker: The government will also launch a “refreshed” housing strategy.

You generally refresh things when they are stale, or aren’t working.

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