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Throne speech: B.C. government creates 'prosperity fund' from natural gas sales to pay down debt

The legislature is now in session for 19 days before election campaigning begins

B.C.’s cash-strapped Liberal government painted a rosy picture Tuesday of a debt-free province flush with money from a booming natural gas sector, in a throne speech that Opposition New Democrats say was built more on desperate hope than reality.

Premier Christy Clark’s government unveiled a plan for a “prosperity fund” that would accumulate more than $100 billion in revenue from liquefied natural gas plants over the next 30 years, and use it to pay off debt and maybe even one day eliminate the provincial sales tax.

“Once we bring this opportunity home for this province, by the time my son is 26 years old, we could be debt free,” said Clark, whose son, Hamish, is 11.

“We could be setting our province on the path to make sure our children have no debt, which is what my parents wanted for me and probably what your parents wanted for you.”

But she quickly caught fire from critics including the NDP, who said her government has had an abysmal record of forecasting revenue. The Liberals couldn’t even predict volatile natural gas prices for a six-month stretch in the most recent budget, let alone forecast 30 years into the future, said NDP leader Adrian Dix.

“We saw a throne speech that seemed thrown together,” he said.

It contained little for the forest industry, high-tech sector or film and television industry, and failed to follow up on the government’s B.C. Jobs Plan, Dix said.

“What you saw today was the end of a comprehensive jobs plan, replaced by, obviously, a hope,” Dix said. “We see the government really giving up on its own agenda here.”

While B.C. has at least five liquefied natural gas projects in varying stages of approval and development, none of the companies involved has made final investment decisions on whether to continue.

The prosperity fund estimates assume that at least some revenue would begin in 2017 — through royalties, corporate taxes and a new liquefied natural gas tax — and at least five gas projects would be online by 2021, government officials said.

In that scenario, B.C.’s $56-billion debt could be eliminated by 2027, though officials admit that’s an aggressive estimate. The government currently pays $2.4 billion a year in interest to service the debt.

The throne speech, read by Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon, also made a passing reference to possibly eliminating the provincial sales tax one day, though Clark offered no specifics on how she would accomplish that.

The Liberals are preparing to table a provincial budget next week that they’ve promised will be balanced, despite slumping revenue.

Tuesday’s throne speech was the beginning of a 19-day session of the legislature, before politicians break to campaign in advance of the May 14 provincial election.

Other highlights included a push toward traditional Chinese medicine in the health-care system, as well as unspecified improvements to early childhood services, affordable childcare and help saving for post-secondary education.