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N.B. Tory government budget offers surplus, debt reduction
Published Tuesday, March 19, 2019 10:19AM ADT Last Updated Tuesday, March 19, 2019 4:31PM ADT
FREDERICTON -- New Brunswick's minority Tory government tabled a budget Tuesday that makes a series of targeted cuts while offering the first net debt reduction in 13 years.
Finance Minister Ernie Steeves said the province is at a crossroads, and it would be irresponsible to delay hard decisions.
His $9.8-billion budget projects a $23-million surplus.
He said New Brunswickers paid $1 billion in increased taxes over the last four years under the previous Liberal government.
"There is simply no reason the budget could not have been balanced earlier. Instead, nearly $1 billion was added to New Brunswick's net debt over the last four years," he said.
The province's debt is estimated at $14.1 billion, and is expected to decline by $49 million by this time next year.
Steeves said the budget, titled "Acting with Urgency," represents a new beginning for the province.
It contains no new taxes or fee increases.
"For us it's a victory seeing the government balance its books and start reducing the debt," said Louis-Phillipe Gauthier of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Steeves says about 100 civil service jobs will be cut, and expects most will be done through attrition.
Funding for the New Brunswick Women's Council is being cut by about $390,000 -- or roughly 48 per cent -- but Steeves said it returns its funding to the level from two years ago.
Provincial revenues are projected to grow by 1.5 per cent for 2019-20, while spending growth is being limited to 1.3 per cent.
The government will spend more than $16 million to increase wages for home support workers.
That's good news to Green Leader David Coon, but said he's worried about cuts in assistance to the poor.
The budget allocates a slight increase for the Department of Social Development, but will make cuts in programs such as Child Welfare and Disability Support Services (about $3 million less), Income Security (about $10 million less) and Housing Services (about $9 million less).
"Significant cuts for social assistance, significant cuts on affordable housing, and depending on how you look at it, spending less money than they did this year on child welfare and disabilities. Those concern me," Coon said.
The budget's most visible impact will likely be the elimination of front licence plates on vehicles -- a move that was sought by the People's Alliance party. As well, the fee paid by volunteer firefighters for their licence plates will be eliminated.
Steeves said $2.4 million will be spent in 2019-20 to recruit and retain more nurses.
The budget will have to win the support of at least one opposition party, but the People's Alliance has previously announced it would back the minority government through its first 18 months.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he's pleased with the money to recruit nurses, and efforts to reduce the wait times for surgeries like hip and knee replacements. Austin said his party will support the budget.
The government will introduce legislation to reintroduce the New Brunswick Tuition Tax Credit, and will unveil a renewed bursary program for students attending universities and colleges in the province.
"We are facing a serious labour shortage in this province with nearly 25 per cent of our labour force aged 55 or over, workers who are at or approaching retirement age. We need workers. Our economy depends on our ability to recruit them," Steeves said.
He said the province will ask the federal government to allow for a reduction in the scope of work to improve Route 11 to allow for the completion of twinning to Bouctouche and allow for improvements on the route to Miramichi.
The highway passes through the riding of Benoit Bourque, the Liberal member for Kent South, and he's not happy the new government is not doing all the improvements planned by the previous Liberal government.
"It's a step in the right direction, but it's still not good enough," Bourque said.
Steeves said the province will also seek help from Ottawa for the health care system.
"In our view, the only reasonable solution is to seek a one-time demographic weighted health care agreement from the government of Canada," Steeves said. "This would allow New Brunswick to navigate through this unavoidable financial crisis being caused by our demographic situation."
About 16 per cent of New Brunswickers are over the age of 65.
As promised, the government is increasing the annual budget for the auditor general by $1 million. It is also giving the language commissioner a 25-per-cent funding increase, or $136,000 a year.
Premier Blaine Higgs had repeatedly stated his government would present a balanced budget.