FREDERICTON -- The Blaine Higgs government has tabled a $10.6 billion budget, with a $244.8 million deficit – a clear indication of how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the province’s bottom-line.

“It’s not the budget that I wanted to deliver, but it is the budget that New Brunswick needs,” said Finance Minister Ernie Steeves to reporters ahead of his speech in the legislature.

Over $146 million is budgeted for pressures related to the pandemic. Of that, $64 million is earmarked for healthcare, including $30 million for immunization campaign, and $15.4 million contract tracing and testing.

“It’s a different world, that’s how we reconcile it more than anything else, it’s a different world. The pandemic has changed things completely for everybody,” he said. “This budget takes us further into debt. We don’t want debt but you know what, now is the time. Now is the time we have to spend money this year. Can’t worry about balancing the budget this year.”

Mental health services received about $5 million more in its budget, and $7 million across several departments within government. Last month, a N.B. teen suicide sparked calls to make major changes to the mental health system, specifically for youth. The province is promising $3.1 million to “address the increase in complex cases” and for “high-needs children and youth.”

Steeves mentioned in his speech that about 30 per cent of hospital beds are occupied by seniors who could be better treated in nursing homes, and within 10 years, over 28 per cent of New Brunswick’s population will be over 65.

He calls federal health transfers “insufficient,” saying they don’t “meet the needs of New Brunswick’s population.”

Three new nursing home facilities will see $10.3 million for homes in Miramichi, Moncton and Fredericton – resulting in 148 new beds.

Money has been set aside to pay early childhood educators .75 cents more/hour – and $12.4 million will see an increase in wages for home support workers, special care home workers, community residence workers and family support workers.

Steeves acknowledged the hardships the pandemic has brought on for business, specifically those in the tourism sector. He revealed the travel incentive program will be offered again in 2021. The program saw a 20 per cent return for New Brunswickers’ travel expenses within the province. Steeves says in 2020, people claimed over $17 million in expenses.

And the Department of Education is going to continue its laptop program, created so that students can learn from home should they need to because of COVID-19. The department has set aside $1 million to supply about 2,000 students with laptops for the upcoming school year.

On April 1, gas prices will increase 2.21 cents/litre as a result of the province’s commitment to the federal price on carbon.