FREDERICTON -- The New Brunswick government will bring in targeted spending increases in its budget Tuesday, with fiscal balance remaining years away.
A government source with knowledge of the budget to be presented by Finance Minister Cathy Rogers says the document includes a 5.4 per cent hike in grants to community colleges, and funding for "research and strategic initiatives."
The source said it will also mean a five per cent increase in funds available for financial assistance for both university and community college students.
The increase takes funding for those areas from almost $162 million last year to $170.3 million in the upcoming budget -- the Liberals' third.
Meanwhile, the budget includes $2.4 million more for pre-school autism intervention programs, and there will be a small decrease to the small business tax effective April 1 this year, from 3.5 to three per cent.
During a pre-budget news conference in a Fredericton public park, Rogers said her government remains committed to balancing the budget by 2020-21 by gradually reducing annual deficits.
"None of us like debt and I can tell you fiscal responsibility is important to us ... but I also want to say we'll remain committed to protecting programs of health and education. This is what New Brunswickers want," she said.
Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University, says the $13.4 billion debt remains the fiscal elephant in the room -- with every citizen's share at about $18,000.
In the province's third quarter update, the finance department said the 2016-17 deficit is currently expected to add about $230 million to the total, not including any portions of the contingency funds that may be needed.
Bateman said Premier Brian Gallant is walking a tightrope, dealing with the debt without making cuts to basic services that will could cause the Liberals major political damage.
"The Gallant government has turned out to be fairly cautious. It's not interested in rocking the fiscal boat too much," he said in a telephone interview.
He refers to the small spending increases as "drop in the bucket kind of stuff," amidst rising pressures to keep spending more on health care as the population ages.
"It's a very difficult thing for New Brunswick governments to get ahold of ... as a result our net debt grows and we're fortunate to be in a low-interest environment and that's what is keeping this livable."
He said as net debt grows, it's consuming about eight per cent of the province's spending and he predicts that will continue to climb.
Bateman argues that the Atlantic provinces will ultimately need changes to federal transfer payments to assist with their debt problems, but adds it's not clear the political will for this exists in other regions of Canada.
Rogers said she expected to outline Tuesday how a recent agreement with the federal Liberals for health spending will assist in funding hospitals and care.