4 things you need to know about the State of the Province
Gallant promises 50-50 split between spending cuts, tax hikes in Tuesday's budget
The annual State of the Province speech can seem like a made-up news event, a chance for the premier of the day to repackage everything he has said before into a tidy confection that reaches New Brunswickers directly, unfiltered, through their televisions.
But the speech can also contain new clues about where a government is going, and Thursday's speech by Premier Brian Gallant, his second, had four significant takeaways:
1. Gallant's math points to a hike in the HST. Gallant said that taken together, the first two Liberal budgets — last year's and next week's — will have an equal ratio of spending cuts and new revenue.
The goal of program review is $500 million, so that's $250 million in cuts and $250 million in revenue.
The Liberals are claiming they already found "$115 million in savings" last year under program review, so they need to find $135 this year.
They say there were no program review tax hikes last year, so that means $250 million this year.
That figure happens to be close to the estimated revenue from a two-point HST increase, and may make highway tolls unnecessary
2. Six choices, or 32? So how do the Liberals find that $135 million in new savings?
Gallant referred, Thursday night, to the list of six major options the government has publicized, but repeated his promise that two of them, major health and education cuts, won't happen.
Of the remaining "three or four" big options that he says will be in the budget, only one, slashing the civil service, is a spending cut. And it's only worth $20 million to $45 million.
But as Victor Boudreau, the minister responsible for the government's strategic program review, pointed out earlier in the week, while the Liberal public relations blitz "focused a lot" on the six major options, there were 32, in all, in his report.
Boudreau said some of those will be in the budget, too, but Gallant didn't mention them Thursday night.
3. Election, what election? Gallant said in his speech that he wasn't basing decisions on short–term political advantage, and that governments must "stop thinking about the next couple of months, and stop thinking about the four-year cycle."
But just a few minutes earlier, he delivered an easy applause line by promising to spend "the most in health care, and the most in education, in the history of our province."
He cited what New Brunswickers said in public meetings, which he seems to suggest is completely unrelated to how they might vote in 2018.
4. Good Grit, Bad Grit? Cabinet minister Victor Boudreau has worked on the program review for more than a year, but it was Gallant who decreed earlier this month there would be no major cuts to health care and education.
Since then, Boudreau has explicitly attributed the decision to the premier. People didn't want those cuts, "and the premier heard that message," Boudreau said this week.
"While we were out consulting on the Choices report … the premier was obviously starting to form his opinion."
In Thursday night's speech, Gallant seemed to distance himself from his minister's report, saying "Boudreau … and his team" received thousands of ideas, "they" took those ideas, "they" analyzed them, "they came up" with the options, and "they boiled it down" to the Choices report.
It's hardly new to see a premier take credit for a popular decision, but such explicit 'pointing at the other guy' is rare.