Budget and economy to dominate spring session of New Brunswick legislature

FREDERICTON – When the New Brunswick government brings in its latest budget Tuesday many observers will be watching for how the Progressive Conservatives plan to turn around the province’s worsening financial situation.

Since the 2012-13 budget was released a year ago, the deficit has more than doubled to at least $411 million and in pre-budget meetings Finance Minister Blaine Higgs has discussed the needed to generate new revenue.

He has suggested a number of possibilities, such as rescinding previous cuts in personal and corporate income taxes, raising consumption taxes, imposing highway tolls, increasing the harmonized sales tax or introducing a health levy. Imposing tolls or hiking the HST would require a referendum.

The Opposition Liberals say there has been a decline in the key financial indicators since Premier David Alward’s government came to power in 2010 and the government needs to show it has a plan to create jobs.

“The last two-and-a-half years have been about broken words, broken contracts and broken promises,” said Opposition Leader Victor Boudreau.

Deputy premier Paul Robichaud is defending the government’s record and promising more than 40 bills in the spring session of the legislature.

“New Brunswickers will be able to realize that we are making some very good steps in the right direction to grow the economy, to create more jobs,” he said in an interview.

While he refused to be specific on the government’s legislative agenda, Robichaud said some of those bills will deal with energy, innovation, and new conflict of interest guidelines recently suggested by the NDP.

Robichaud said the Tories will focus on fulfilling promises they made during the 2010 election.

But Boudreau said you only have to look at health to find a long list of unkept promises, such as removing ambulance fees, doubling the number of seats in New Brunswick medical schools and making sure everyone has a family doctor.

Tom Bateman, a political science professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said financial constraints make it difficult for the government to keep those promises, adding that they might have to settle for simply avoiding deep cuts.

“I think at the end of the day it will be easier for government to increase revenues than to decrease spending,” Bateman said.

“It is going to have to deal with the rhetorical problem of campaign promises, but perhaps it thinks that’s an easier one than cutting spending on big ticket items like health.”

The Liberals say the provincial government also needs to arrest a decline in New Brunswick’s population, which Statistics Canada says fell by 1,137 in 2012.

“People can’t just sit at home waiting for David Alward to implement his so-called plan,” Boudreau said. “They’ve got to put food on the table and put a roof over their head, and unfortunately the only way they can do that is by going to other jurisdictions to find work.”

Boudreau said he expects much of the debate during the spring session to deal with natural gas exploration.

Despite the introduction of new regulations to govern oil and gas exploration in the province, Boudreau said the Opposition and the public still have major concerns.

“The boots on the ground simply aren’t there to make sure these regulations are enforced, so there’s still a lot of debate that needs to occur around these regulations,” Boudreau said.

The government has touted the shale gas industry as a means to bolster the economy and create jobs, but the Liberals want a moratorium on exploration until more is known about possible impacts on the environment.

The Progressive Conservatives have 41 seats in the legislature, while the Liberals have 12. There is one Independent and one vacancy.

The vacancy in the riding of Kent was created by the recent resignation of former Liberal premier Shawn Graham after he was found to be in a conflict of interest over a loan guarantee his government gave to a construction firm in 2009.

The province’s conflict of interest commissioner said the former premier should have removed himself from the cabinet discussions about the loan guarantee to Acton because it had ties to his father.

The party’s new leader, Brian Gallant, doesn’t have a seat in the house but he is running in a byelection in Kent on April 15 to replace Graham.