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British Columbia projects surplus in pre-election 'give-back' budget

(Adds details on budget, finance minister comments)

By Nicole Mordant

VANCOUVER, Feb 21 (Reuters) - British Columbia on Tuesday projected a budget surplus of C$295 million ($224 million) in fiscal 2017-18, the province's fifth consecutive balanced budget under the ruling Liberals, and unveiled financial relief measures for families and businesses 11 weeks before a provincial election.

The surplus is projected at C$244 million in 2018-19 and C$223 million in 2019-20, the government said.

The revised surplus for the current fiscal year ending March 31 is now seen at C$1.5 billion, down from the previous forecast of C$2.2 billion.

The government attributed the weaker-than-expected performance to higher spending on one-off emergency management preparedness measures such as flood control, forest rehabilitation to prevent fires and infrastructure investments.

A fifth surplus meant the government could now give back, Finance Minister Michael de Jong told reporters, saying the relief measures were due to the province's financial strength and not a ploy to win votes in an election set for May 9.

After 15 years in power, the Liberal Party - which is not linked to the federal party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and is more right-leaning - faces a tight election race against the left-leaning New Democratic Party with many voters unhappy with the provincial government's recent approval of the Trans Mountain oil pipeline.

The government has also been under pressure from residents to increase housing supply and affordability, especially in the Vancouver region, Canada's most expensive real estate market.

The Liberals took several steps in the past year to cool prices, including introducing a tax on foreign buyers in Vancouver, who many blamed for average house prices soaring to C$1.5 million.

The Western Canadian province said it would slash medical services premiums in a first step toward eliminating them, de Jong said.

The premiums, which do not exist elsewhere in Canada and as such have irked many residents, help finance the province's publicly funded medical services.

The budget also contained relief measures for businesses. It will phase out provincial sales tax on their electricity purchases by April 1, 2019 and cut the small business tax rate.

The province will also increase spending on education, healthcare and child welfare.

But the budget was thin on new initiatives other than raising the threshold to C$500,000 from C$475,000 for a recently launched first-time homebuyer's program. It said this increase would save buyers up to C$8,000 in property transfer tax.

($1 = 1.3145 Canadian dollars) (Reporting by Nicole Mordant in Vancouver; editing by Phil Berlowitz)