B.C.’s new auditor general is tracking the province’s massive spending in the COVID-19 pandemic, but too many unknowns remain to rate the government’s performance in the crisis.
Auditor General Michael Pickup was hired by unanimous vote of the B.C. legislature during its summer session in July. His eight-year appointment comes after six years as auditor general for Nova Scotia, and previous work with the federal auditor’s office.
Pickup’s first report, released Sept. 11, does not attempt to audit B.C.’s pandemic spending program, but only to keep up with the myriad of deficit spending initiatives and tax deferrals. He agrees with the finance ministry’s estimate that B.C. businesses have accumulated $6.2 billion in provincial sales, fuel and other taxes that are due to be paid to the province by the end of September.
Finance Minister Carole James confirmed in this week’s release of first quarter financial results that there will be no further extensions in deferred tax payments. Even with the taxes turned in, the ministry is forecasting a record deficit of $12.8 billion for the fiscal year that began April 1.
The six-month deferral of payments to Sept. 30 applies to provincial sales tax, tobacco tax, motor fuel tax and carbon tax collected by businesses. A six-month moratorium on student loan collection also ends, with $70 million in repayments due, and deferred payments from B.C. Hydro residential and commercial customers estimated at $103 million are also due Sept. 30.
The report confirms the main elements of B.C.’s $5 billion COVID-19 relief fund, of which $1.5 billion remains to be allocated as business assistance. James rejected opposition suggestions that some of the deferred tax payments should be waived as businesses work to recover from pandemic restrictions.
Pickup said his monitoring report is not audited, and government auditors around the world are doing similar work, “to ensure that independent, non-partisan information is made available during this time of significant funding allocations.”