The Alward government is not directly admitting it broke a 2010 election promise to freeze property tax assessments for 60,000 seniors, suggesting wishful thinking by seniors might have led to false expectations about what it was proposing.
"I indicated very clearly I understand that it did not meet the expectations of many seniors," Finance Minister Blaine Higgs told Opposition Leader Brian Gallant in Question Period on Tuesday.
"I am not denying that because everyone would like every expense to stop increasing and never go up."
Liberals have asked questions about the 2010 election promise for two straight days in question period following a series of CBC News investigative reports on property tax issues. But government ministers have been resisting any suggestion seniors were promised something they didn't get when universal assessment freezes proposed in the election were changed to non-universal assessment deferrals.
"The [deferral] program works," said Economic Development Minister Bruce Fitch as questions on the issue resumed Wednesday.
"The people have a choice and that is what it is all about, helping seniors stay in their homes by not having to pay any more property tax on their residences."
Two weeks before the 2010 election Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward told a room full of seniors in Moncton he would exempt every home belonging to a senior from property tax assessment increases for the life of the owner.
"A new Progressive Conservative government will permanently freeze property tax assessments for all homeowners over 65 years of age," Alward said as the PC party recorded the event and later posted it on YouTube. Identical language was also used in the PC platform document: Putting New Brunswick First for a Change
However, after the election the permanent assessment freeze for seniors was cancelled, replaced with a program that allows seniors to apply for an assessment increase deferral instead. Under that program government places liens on seniors' homes to recover deferred taxes plus interest after the senior and his or her spouse leaves the home.
Earlier this week a CBC News investigation revealed the program has been unpopular with seniors with only 60 of the 60,000 promised tax assistance in the 2010 election subscribing to the deferral plan in three years.
David Alward was in the Legislature Tuesday but would not answer questions put to him about whether he had misled seniors during the election.
"Will the Premier admit that he indeed in fact broke another promise when he did not deliver a permanently frozen property tax assessment to all homeowners of the age of 65," asked Gallant.
Instead Higgs on Tuesday and Fitch on Wednesday answered the questions, with both describing the assessment freeze proposed in the election as a poor idea that would force the province and municipalities to raise tax rates on homeowners and businesses to compensate.
Higgs said the deferral program avoids that problem and suggested the fact so few seniors have signed up for deferrals means widespread property tax help, proposed by Tories in the election, might not have been needed after all.
"I think the fact that for 60,000 seniors it was not actually necessary to apply for a tax deferral is a good thing," said Higgs.