If you had $136 million to spare, how would you spend it? B.C. Finance Minister Mike de Jong asked a group of Kamloops chamber members Tuesday.
The minister has embarked on a tour of seven Interior communities to meet with chamber representatives to talk about their priorities for the provincial budget.
The province is expecting a $136-million surplus this year and a similar amount for next year.
"I'm trying to get a sense . . . what are the priorities."
With a $44-billion annual budget, B.C. has outperformed the country for gross domestic product. It has also diversified its export economy, shifting trade from 70 per cent with the U.S. in 2001 to 45 per cent. B.C. now has 40 per cent of its trade with Asia.
"Last year, China by volume was our biggest trade customer," he said.
The minister had a message of economic optimism for the 14 chamber members in the room, saying liquid natural gas is going to create a real renaissance for the province.
He asked those present how they think the government should spend its surplus — a question being posed on the Finance Ministry's website and included on de Jong's tour.
The four options he offered were: reduce taxes, create new programs, pay down the debt faster or public sector compensation.
As to the latter, he noted the public service has taken several rounds of zero per cent increases in the name of economic restraint. "Unions should take some credit for getting us to this point," he said.
Shirley Wells from Laughing Swan Farms did some quick math and offered him her numbers to divide up the surplus pie: 35 per cent on reducing taxes, 15 per cent on new programs, 40 per cent on paying down the debt and 10 per cent on public sector compensation.
Others had more questions than answers at this point.
Brant Hasanen from Edward Jones said the LNG initiative might bring his two sons back from Alberta, where they went to find work.
He wondered when the good-paying jobs associated with liquid natural gas could start showing up.
De Jong said it's still a way off, but if B.C. is smart, it will start looking at training in the near future. "I think we are on the cusp for a pretty incredible renaissance for B.C.," he said.
As far as resources are concerned, the idea of a social contract has changed. A little dust in exchange for a long-awaited arena is something that will get more thought.
And B.C. will still push to be at the top of environmental stringency, he said.
"I don't buy the notion we can't do some of these things in an environmentally responsible way," he said.
Other questions included relief from B.C. Hydro rates for manufacturing, skills training and some type of value-added tax similar to the HST (which the minister said would not happen).
De Jong said the budget is all but cast by mid-December, so the consultations will be quickly compiled with those from the all-party finance committee.