VICTORIA B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell said Monday his government is still hoping to bring in a balanced budget on Feb. 17 – as required by law – but he softened his earlier rock-solid commitments to keep the province a “deficit-free zone.”
In an interview as he prepared to fly to Ottawa to watch Tuesday's federal budget being released, Mr. Campbell said the economic picture is moving too quickly to say what February will bring.
“There isn't a day that's gone by where things haven't got more challenging, more difficult. We're running to catch up with the reduction in revenues, we have to protect our health and education investments, so this is a very, very difficult budget.”
It was Mr. Campbell's government that introduced, with much fanfare, legislation requiring balanced budgets. Asked whether he is giving himself some wriggle room now, he replied: “It means we are working our tails off to see what we can do to make sure we balance, but I can't tell you what the world is going to hold tomorrow and I can't tell you what's going to happen next week.”
In October, when Prime Minister Stephen Harper first hinted that his Conservative government would entertain the idea of a deficit budget, Mr. Campbell was adamant he would not follow suit.
“It took us a generation to get out of deficits,” Mr. Campbell said, after a meeting of Canada's premiers on the global financial crisis.
“I am not one of the people that's going to be advocating we go to deficit. It's like an addiction. Once you are there, it's very hard to get off it.”
Then, in a rare television address on the state of the economy, the Premier vowed to keep B.C. a “deficit-free zone.”
Since then, however, the province's top economic advisers have predicted its economy is either in recession or poised to slide into one. As well, the Premier has been granted some leeway on the subject by the business community, including the Vancouver Board of Trade's Darcy Rezac.
Mr. Rezac, who is the first to trot out a “debt clock” when governments spend more than they take in, said in an interview this month that governments should be focusing on big stimulus first.
“If there is ever an argument that you don't have to balance the budget, now is the time,” he said. “We would forgive them for going into deficit.”
Last fall, the B.C. Liberal government attacked the opposition New Democratic Party for spending promises that might put the province into the red.
“This is a recipe for putting the province back into deficit financing,” provincial Finance Minister Colin Hansen said in October, responding to the NDP's plans for responding to the growing economic crisis.
Today will be the first time that Mr. Campbell has watched in person as the federal budget is delivered. He said he expects to be sitting in the House of Commons public gallery.
“I hope my being there is simply a statement about unity, about constructive partnerships and about the urgency of the situation we now face,” he said.
While many of the items that he has pressed for in this federal budget have already been promised in broad terms, Mr. Campbell said he will be watching the details to ensure that the spending plan translates into money being pumped into the economy quickly.
“For me, this is a budget that is about jobs first, jobs second and jobs third. The question is, how do we partner up resources to make sure we maximize the benefits, not just for British Columbia but for Canadians across the country?”