Abby MLA and finance minister Mike de Jong on budget balancing

In an exclusive interview, finance minister Mike de Jong speaks about the new Liberal budget

Abbotsford West MLA and B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong in his office in Victoria on Tuesday.

Creating a $44-billion provincial budget is a vastly complex exercise, requiring hundreds of people and months to complete.

Yet, according to the man accountable for B.C.’s latest financial path, “At the end of the day, the levers are the same ones that you have at home in your budget.

“If you want to spend more money, you have to make more money or go into debt. Depending on what you’re spending on, that may make sense or not,”  Mike de Jong said Tuesday.

The Abbotsford West MLA has held the finance post since September of last year. He is the first finance minister from Abbotsford, and as such, the first MLA from here to table a budget.

In a personal interview with The News in Victoria on Tuesday afternoon, de Jong explained that although he is the spokesperson of the current budget, the process requires a huge number of experts, staff and resources.

De Jong said he continually revisited the guiding principles of the budget, which were controlling spending and generating growth.

The budget proposes to balance the books through increases in income taxes, increases to Medical Services Plan premiums, and the sale of Crown assets. The taxpayer benefits in the lean package are mainly aimed at helping families, including an educational savings grants and funding for childcare.

The new budget proposes to implement income tax increases on business and higher-income individuals. The corporate income tax rate would rise one point to 11 per cent effective April 1.

Personal income taxes for those earning $150,000 or more would rise 2.1 per cent to 16.8 per cent for two years, starting next January. That increase is to be rolled back to the current rate of 14.7 per cent in 2015.

Also proposed is a tobacco tax hike of $2 per carton of cigarettes. De Jong said the effective date is held off until Oct. 1 to give people time to quit smoking.

De Jong’s budget also proposes to phase out school property tax credits for light industry for the 2013 budget year.

Budget day at the legislature Tuesday officially began for de Jong at 8:30 a.m. with a briefing for cabinet. At 10 a.m. he spoke to the media and stakeholders, covering the basic concepts within the budget.

He left the reporters in the morning for a final briefing with staff, before heading back to the budget lockup for a question and answer with the media. After less than an hour with reporters, de Jong left to meet with caucus, before heading to the legislature for the budget speech. The Liberals loudly applauded in support at various points, while across the floor, NDP leader Adrian Dix sat quietly, occasionally whispering to finance critic Bruce Ralston.

The NDP’s response was one of skepticism as to whether the budget will truly be balanced, a sentiment they said the public will share after the Liberal’s previous handling of the province’s finances.

The austere budget did not surprise most, as de Jong had already warned it would be a lean plan, focused on getting the government’s financial house in order.

With little room for enticing voters with spending, de Jong said it’s a matter of prioritizing what can be done with the money available.

“You want to balance the budget, so that means the deficit has to shrink and disappear. You want to try and make life a little more affordable for families. How do you do that? You don’t want to raise taxes except at a very last resort. How do you reconcile that objective with the other two? It becomes a little bit of a balancing act along the way.”

With the budget falling in a short session of legislature, before an upcoming election in May, the surrounding debate has been particularly ferocious.

“This legislative assembly is a very partisan place right now… I believe this budget is different because it doesn’t represent an attempt to purchase people’s support,” he said.

Asked whether the strict budget is intended to show voters the Liberals can be fiscally responsible, de Jong said it shows the government “can resist the ever-present temptation to put off balancing the budget to another day, another year, another generation.”

The minister said the time has come for the NDP to show what their approach would be, instead of criticizing the Liberal’s proposal.

De Jong was first elected to the legislature in 1994. He has served as attorney general, solicitor general, minister of health, public safety, labour, forests, and aboriginal relations and reconciliation.

The upcoming election in May will pit de Jong against independent candidate Moe Gill, an Abbotsford city councillor and former Liberal party member.  NDP candidate Sukhi Dhami and Conservative Paul Redekopp will also run against de Jong in his long-held Abbotsford West riding.

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