Business community sighs relief as PQ budget sidelines platform

MONTREAL – The business community is breathing a sigh of relief after the Parti Quebecois government shelved many of its campaign promises when it produced its first post-election budget.

Business leaders praised the three-month-old government for putting much of its left-leaning platform on hold and addressing other economic priorities.

The head of Quebec’s federation of chambers of commerce wasn’t sure what to expect before its release. The organization had been critical of the new government but was singing a more positive tune Wednesday.

“We hoped — and it was a nice surprise,” Francoise Bertrand said of the previous day’s budget in an interview.

“These are signs that are very, very encouraging.”

PQ campaign pledges had raised concerns within the business community that the budget would contain things like bigger income-tax increases and additional mining royalties.

The complaints became so acute that two major credit-rating agencies warned Quebec they would downgrade the status of the mighty Caisse de depot pension-fund manager. The PQ had promised to allocate a share of its funds to Quebec-only projects, but did not include this project in its budget.

The party has also hinted at a moratorium on shale-gas development and tougher language laws, although it’s unclear where either of those projects stand.

Bertrand, whose network represents 155 chambers of commerce and 1,200 businesses, said the PQ struck an acceptable balance between fiscal and social obligations, particularly in the tough economic climate.

Investor updates prepared by financial institutions after Tuesday’s budget release welcomed the government’s plan to eliminate the deficit in 2013-14, reduce the debt, cut program spending and boost support for businesses.

Stefane Marion, chief economist of the National Bank of Canada, applauded Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau’s plan to tighten government spending to slay the deficit rather than adding to the tax burden of Quebecers.

“The Marois government has recalibrated its election program to take economic conditions into account and meet the balanced-budget target for 2013-14,” Marion wrote.

“We look favourably on the first Marceau budget. Under difficult economic conditions, the government is staying the course on deficit elimination by tight control of spending.”

An economist for BMO Capital Markets wrote that the PQ blueprint “serves up a relatively modest dose of fiscal restraint with combined revenue and spending measures.” Robert Kavcic added: “A number of the more contentious potential policy measures also appear to have been dialed back somewhat.”

A budget analysis by Desjardins said: “The goals for getting the budget balanced and controlling the debt are maintained, which should make everybody happy, including the rating agencies.”

But other observers are warning the PQ’s more-frugal-than-expected budget could potentially alienate its base.

“This choice to attain zero deficit starting next year also includes a political price to pay for the PQ,” Josee Legault, a prominent political commentator, wrote on her blog.

“The problem is that ‘zero deficit’… always includes a price for public services. But also for the middle class, low-income workers and the least wealthy who are once again asked to make big ‘sacrifices.’ “

There are concerns the PQ did not do enough for the middle class as it attempted to build credibility in the business community.

Some of the promises that didn’t make it into the budget include a plan to raise mining royalties and pledges to increase spending in certain areas of education and culture.

There are also suggestions that the government will seek pay concessions from medical doctors, who were promised large raises by the previous government.

The goal was to bring salaries closer to those in other regions of the country and stop the huge outflow of doctors from the province. It’s not clear where those 10 per cent annual pay hikes now stand, and how the salary change might affect the province’s doctor shortage.

Premier Pauline Marois had spent much of the campaign promising better services and courting voters of the left-wing Quebec solidaire party.

That party is now saying voters have been betrayed by the PQ.

The business community, meanwhile, said there is room for improvement in the budget.

Bertrand said her federation doesn’t agree with income-tax hikes on people who make more than $100,000 per year — an income level the organization doesn’t consider “super-rich.”

The federation also hopes the budget’s plan to reduce spending on infrastructure will not cancel or delay projects that are essential to the province’s economic development.

And what about those voters now feeling disappointed that the PQ veered away from some of the promises it made?

Bertrand replied: “Frankly, who can claim, whether it’s one government or another, that when we vote for a party we are perfectly satisfied with how the party we voted for behaves?”