Premier David Alward made his 2012 State of the Province Address Thursday night.

Premier David Alward used his annual State of the Province speech on Thursday night to focus on his government's fight to erase its massive deficit and revamp the provincial bureaucracy.

Alward spoke plainly about the province's financial troubles in front of the business crowd.

"Let’s not kid ourselves, times have been tough," he said.

The premier isn't the only public figure to acknowledge the fiscal crisis. Auditor General Kim MacPherson issued a scathing critique of the province’s financial situation in her latest financial report earlier this month.

The provincial deficit is estimated to hit $547.5 million in 2011-12, almost $100 million higher than Finance Minister Blaine Higgs forecasted last March.

The province’s net debt has grown from $7 billion in 2004 to $9.4 billion in 2011.

Alward said ideas from public servants and citizens have helped trim the deficit.

"Thanks to their input, the deficit has been reduced to under $500 million," he said.

He did, however, acknowledge that the deficit was still too large.

The premier said cuts to services and programs is a reality the province may have to make.

"The work to further reduce our deficit will continue in the upcoming budget," he said.

The premier also told the business crowd that his government will establish a Panel on Accountability and Responsible Government.

There were few details about the panel on Thursday. And the panel members will be announced next week, the premier said.

"We must make significant changes to how we spend public money if we are to balance the budget and continue to deliver services that are affordable and sustainable," Alward said.

He said the group will have three broad objectives: restore fiscal stability. live within our means and change the culture of government.

Alward and Higgs have been talking routinely about overhauling the culture of the provincial government for more than a year.

Referendum talk

The premier also raised the issue of tax hikes in his speech.

Alward would not say whether any new tolls or tax hikes would be announced in the March 27 budget.

"The work to further reduce our deficit will continue in the upcoming budget. And there is only one way tolls or an HST increase will happen," he said.

"New Brunswickers would have to vote for them in a referendum or general election. Right now, our focus is on reducing waste, finding efficiencies, and delivering services in a more innovative way."

If a referendum was to happen, it could take place at the same time as municipal elections, district education councils and health authorities on May 14.

The proposed regulations, which are now open for public input, would kick in if a referendum question needs to be added to the ballot during the upcoming local elections.

The regulations follow Alward’s introduction of a permanent referendum law last year, which was a commitment he made during the 2010 election campaign.

"Right now, our focus is on reducing waste, finding efficiencies and delivering services in a more innovative way," he added.

For now, Alward said Thursday, New Brunswick's focus is is ensure public and private pension plans are protected, which is part of the government renewal initiative.

The initiative is aims improve focus on core services, meet budget expectations and complete a three-year plan to balance the province's budget.

Higgs is currently on the road, hosting public meetings to solicit input on the province's financial situation.

Alward's speech also discussed reviewing the Official Languages Act and addressing an aging New Brunswick population.

"We know there is a lot of work to do, but we can get there together," he said.