Business leaders push for balanced budget before 2018

Business leaders aren't taking it as a given that New Brunswick will return to posting budget surpluses in 2018.

Concern expressed about New Brunswick's spending still outpacing income and sparks calls for change

The panel discusses the 2014-15 budget 14:02

Business leaders aren't taking it as a given that New Brunswick will return to posting budget surpluses in 2018.

The Progressive Conservative government of David Alward had once promised to start delivering balanced budgets in 2014-15. But when Finance Minister Blaine Higgs delivered his budget for the coming year on Tuesday, he announced it would be 2017-18 before the province writes its bottom line in black ink.

Susan Holt, president of the New Brunswick Business Council, sees the surplus projection as "a possibility,but not a given."

Susan Holt of the New Brunswick Business Council says it's still a problem that spending is outpacing revenue in the province. (CBC)
"I don't think it is in any way something we can confidently bet on, but I think it's something we can work toward," said Holt.

Kevin Lacey, the Atlantic representative for the Canadian Taxpayers Association, would like to see the province start posting surpluses long before 2018.

"I'm pleased there was a plan because prior to this there was no date," said Lacey. "There is so much that can happen between now and 2018. The issue is it's too far off."

Lacey noted that the last surplus in New Brunswick was in 2007-08.

"It's one thing to say 2018 compared to now, but we've been going on this road for such a long period of time," he said. "And for each bump it keeps getting worse, and worse and worse.

"I wish it was a little speedier."

Holt would also like to see a balanced budget come earlier than 2018. She said fundamental change is required in how the province is governed in order to do that. She notes that while Higgs has held spending to 2 per cent next year, that's still a problem because revenue is only forecast to grow by 1 per cent, so the province goes deeper into debt.

"We've seen better behaviour in spending. We've seen efforts to come in under budget," said Holt.

Kevin Lacey of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation welcomes a measure to make political parties accountable for the cost of their election promises in New Brunswick. (CBC)
"What we haven't seen is aggressive moves, full-scale changes of certain parts of our government to get us to where we need to be on the expense side," said Holt. "We really have to make some major changes here that go beyond management structure and thought penny counting."

Lacey said the budget doesn't go far enough and echoed Holt's concern about spending growth outpacing revenue growth.

"The spending … while positive that it has not gone up as much as it has under previous governments, is still above what the revenues are, and that's a real problem," said Lacey.

He notes that the government's spending includes paying out $685 million annually to cover the interest on a debt that will grow to $12 billion next year

Patrick Colford, president of the New Brunswick Federation of Labour, is also skeptical a balanced budget can be delivered in 2018.

"We were told give me four years," said Colford. "Now at this point it seems like, `Give us another mandate and we'll make it happen.'

"I guess I'm skeptical in that it'll happen without making big changes."

Colford said the province could have generated $64 million in revenue with a return to 2008 taxation levels and establishing a new tax bracket for those making more than $150,000 a year.

Lacey lauded Higgs for promising accountability measures that will make political parties cost out their election promises in the campaign as the province goes to the polls in September.

"That will effectively end the election auction that goes on each and every year during campaigns," said Lacey.