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B.C.'s Clark signals that lowering taxes will be a priority Add to ...

British Columbia's premier-designate Christy Clark cast doubts on Monday on a planned increase to medical service premiums, saying her government needs to rethink the tax burden it places on families.

Ms. Clark also flagged concern with proposed rate hikes on electricity - a strong hint that the Crown corporation, BC Hydro, may run into opposition with its plan to increase the price of power by 50 per cent over the next five years.

Ms. Clark, who won the B.C. Liberal leadership on Feb. 26, will be sworn in March 14. At the same time, she'll unveil a new and smaller cabinet. Although she campaigned as an outsider to government who would represent change, she played down on Monday just how different her cabinet will look.

"People want change but we also want to have some stability in government as well," she told reporters in Victoria.

The bigger change, she suggested, is in the way the government will operate under her leadership: "To make sure we are pursing a families-first agenda for government, and that is making sure every aspect of government is thinking about families as it formulates its decisions."

Ms. Clark signalled that lowering taxes for families would be a priority.

While the government has touted its personal-income-tax rates as the lowest in the country, Ms. Clark argued taxpayers are really in the middle of the pack, nationally, when it comes to their total tax load.

"One of the things that government needs to start doing is, rather than just talking about where our tax rates are," she said, is look at "where are we in terms of the total burden of costs that government puts on citizens."

BC Hydro, after allowing capital investments to lag for more than a decade, is now embarking on a series of major capital investments of roughly $2-billion annually. It has projected it will have to hike electricity rates dramatically to pay for the improvements.

Hydro's investments include an $800-million seismic upgrade to the Ruskin dam - a small Fraser Valley power station that will produce power for just 33,000 homes. As well, it is launching a $1-billion smart-meter program that has been exempt from review by the utility's watchdog.

The utility's costs are not only driven by capital costs, however. BC Hydro's payroll has increased by 52 per cent in just three years, from 2006-2009.

The Finance Ministry has not included hydro rates when it compares B.C.'s taxes to other provinces. "Government has to think more holistically about those costs," Ms. Clark said.

She also said she won't throw out the budget that was tabled on Feb. 12, although it includes a six-per-cent hike in MSP costs for British Columbians who pay them. But she may well bring in a new budget - or even call a provincial election - after a June 24 referendum on the harmonized sales tax.

Ms. Clark, who does not yet have a seat in the legislature, has suggested she favours an early election, but it won't be until after the referendum.

And although she wants to win a seat in the House, she still hasn't figured out where she would run. Premier Gordon Campbell, who will officially hand over the reins next Monday, has offered to step down in the riding of Vancouver-Point Grey. "That seems a likely option," she said. "Although we'll see what happens."

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