Finance Minister Blaine Higgs faced a group of Saint John taxpayers on Monday night who used the pre-budget consultation session to blast corporate tax breaks and the financial incentives that are being doled out to large businesses.

Higgs started the annual pre-budget consultation tour in Saint John on Monday. The finance minister’s town hall-style meeting drew roughly 100 people to a community college gym.

Many of the citizens were union representatives who were worried about public service jobs and benefits.

There were also citizens at the forum who told the finance minister that they are tired of watching the provincial government give, what they feel are unfair, breaks to mega-projects and large corporate players.

Gerald O'Dell said those policies are hurting everyone else in the province.

"So all of our businesses, Mr. Higgs, are dying and they're dying because the rich and the wealthy and the corporations are getting handouts like you wouldn't believe," he said.

Sandy Harding said the provincial government should start taxing all individuals and businesses fairly.

"We need to stop the corporate welfare," Harding said.

"And there's no valid evidence that lowering the corporate tax rate is creating jobs that stay in this province. It's not happening."

The finance minister did not tackle those particular points directly.

But Higgs did say the biggest threat to balanced budgets is the election process itself where he said politicians are in the practice of promising far too much.

Financial struggles

The provincial government is struggling to get its finances under control in the face of a deficit that could soon hit almost $550 million this year, which is almost $100 million higher than originally forecasted last March.

Higgs tabled a $948-million capital budget in December, which included a three-year capital spending plan.

While the capital budget included a large pricetag, much of the work was earmarked for the Route 1 highway project and for ongoing projects. Only $24 million is being set aside for new capital projects.

The finance minister is expected to table a three-year plan when the full budget is released in March.

The state of the province's finances was criticized last week by Auditor General Kim MacPherson.

After one full budget cycle under his belt, Higgs said he's made some progress reducing spending.

But the finance minister said the provincial government will need to continue to cut costs and will have to find new sources of revenue.

One way to add revenue to the provincial coffers is by tapping into the potential shale gas reserves in the province. Higgs said developing shale gas has to be considered.

"We have to look at what the potential could be for this province. Once that is determined we have to understand just what it means to develop it in a safe and effective manner. We will not do so otherwise. So we shouldn’t be afraid to look, we shouldn’t be afraid to understand.

Another problem facing the provincial government is New Brunswick’s sputtering economic growth.

Higgs said New Brunswick’s growth rate will be the lowest in Canada this year.