VICTORIA -- Ask politicians these days what a balanced budget is and they'll launch into a fairy tale that begins with "once upon a time," until you get to Mel Couvelier, finance minister of this here province of British Columbia.
A balanced budget, Couvelier says, is something we're going to have by the end of the next fiscal year. Not only that, but by the time Bill Vander Zalm's term as premier is up, a large chunk of the accumulated deficit will have been paid back. So says Mel.
I'm glad it's Couvelier and not me who's staking his job on a miracle, because nothing short if a miracle will make his prophesy come true.
British Columbia's debt, accumulated over the last few years of deficit budgeting, now stands at a little over $6 billion. The anticipated deficit for the current fiscal year is about $500 million.
True, that's considerably less than the $850 million the government was first expecting to go into the hole this year, but it's a further debt, nevertheless, which will bring the province's total deficit to $6.5 billion by the end of March.
So here's the task Couvelier has set himself: First, he wants to bring down a balanced budget for 1988-89. That means he'll have to reduce last year's expenditures or increase last year's revenues by $850 million. A combination of the two will do the same trick.
Next, he'll have to find an extra $2 billion in each of the three years during which he wants to pay back the debt we racked up. It's a job that would make my accountant consider a career change.
Still, Couvelier isn't predisposed to flights of fancy. He has a definite idea of how to make good on his word. Three things, according to the finance minister, will turn British Columbia's financial picture around: increased revenues, streamlined services and privatization.
The stage for fattening government coffers has already been set. The provincial portion of the income tax has been raised and fees for every conceivable government service have been increased.
A big chunk of the added revenue will come from the forest industry in the form of higher stumpage fees. With the introduction of the new Forest Act, forest companies will, for the first time, have to pay more than just a pittance for the privilege of harvesting our timber.
The second budget-balancing ingredient -- streamlined government services -- is also well underway. Cuts in education and health care may not do a lot for our schools and hospitals, but they are saving money.
That leaves the last and probably most important factor in Couvelier's equation: privatization of government services and Crown corporations.
There's no doubt that the Vander Zalm government is determined to sell everything that isn't nailed down. What we've seen so far is only a paltry start. Forget about the sale of the Queen's
Printer bookstore and the soil, feed and tissue laboratory in Kelowna. That's small potatoes. What Couvelier hopes will take the government out of debt is the sale of big-ticket items such as the maintenance of our highways and bridges.
That's where a lot of money will change hands. The highways ministry's multi-million-dollar equipment inventory alone will be enough to retire a sizeable portion of the deficit. Add to that the savings in wages for ministry personnel, and you've got a winner, at least in terms of saving money.
Nor is highways maintenance the only major government function that can and will be liquidated for cash. The B.C. Steamship Company, which operates two floating casinos between Seattle and Victoria, is about to be sold. Liquor stores with fewer than 10employees are for sale.
Down the road is the possible sale of the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, the B.C. Buildings Corporation. Hell, some Socred backbenchers are even advocating the privatization of our education system. The possibilities are limited only by the imagination of the vendor.
Increased revenues and streamlined services will only go so far in balancing the budget and reducing a $6.5 billion debt. The real salvage operation is clearly to be done by way of privatization.
Looking at it that way, Couvelier may not be as pollyannaish as he sounds in his prediction of a balanced budget next year and a paid-off debt within three years. Still, I wouldn't want to bet my job on it.