New Brunswickers must 'want less,' Blaine Higgs warns

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs is warning that New Brunswick taxpayers need to start needing less as the provincial government continues to grapple with its deficit.

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs is CBC New Brunswick's Newsmaker of the Year

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs is the province's top newsmaker for 2011, according to CBC News 2:14

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs’s year-long fight against New Brunswick’s ballooning deficit has earned him the distinction of the newsmaker of the year for CBC News in New Brunswick.

The Progressive Conservative government started 2011 with the dire warnings of a deficit that could hit as much as $1 billion.

Higgs, who was sworn in as finance minister 15 months ago, inherited a $700-million deficit, $200 million in Conservative election promises, and orders to balance the books in four years.

"That's our goal and I think it's something we have to work towards," he said.

That goal, acknowledged Higgs, was a near impossible one, including serious Conservative miscalculations of the cost of the election promises.

"It becomes like an auction. You know, what are you going to promise me? What are you going to promise me? And it just ramps up so after it's all over and the dust clears you start to look at what these things really cost," he said.

Higgs spent several weeks in the winter touring communities and talking to citizens about their ideas on how to whittle down the potential deficit.

In March, Higgs released the Alward government’s first budget that eliminated several small government agencies and made cuts to school district budgets, municipal grants and rural health care.

[IMAGEGALLERY galleryid=1644 size=small] This fall he raised eyebrows when he gave failing grades to the departments of Cabinet colleagues who were still overspending.

Despite those efforts, the provincial deficit is estimated to hit $547.5 million in 2011-12, almost $100 million higher than Higgs forecasted in March.

Higgs said people can expect more tough decisions to be made in 2012. The finance minister has often said the provincial government and taxpayers must learn to distinguish between "wants" and "needs."

The finance minister’s message for 2012 is blunt.

"They need to want less," Higgs said.

"It's a reality of where we are."

Serious about the message

Higgs proved he's serious with his message by helping push cabinet colleagues to abandon a key promise to seniors from their election platform — one he found too expensive.

The real cost of Premier David Alward's election promise to permanently freeze property tax assessments for all homeowners over 65, said Higgs, "would have been huge."

In the legislature it was Higgs who stood to defend the decision to kill the property tax promise — a sign of his growing influence in cabinet and his increasing resolve to bring spending down, no matter whose pet project is in the way.

CBC New Brunswick assignment editor, Al White, said the fact that Higgs is at the centre of the worst financial mess the province has faced in 30 years, was enough to earn him the title of Newsmaker of the Year.

"So many of the stories we were dealing with dealt with the province's financial situation — the debt and the deficit going forward. There were obviously lots of stories about hydro fracking, but running through that story as well is the province's financial situaion. Blaine Higgs is a common denominator in all of those stories," White said.

Inability to control costs

The finance minister made headlines in the fall when he expressed frustration about the government’s inability to control its costs and he blamed some civil servants for slowing down his efforts.

"If there are those who don't want to be part of it, and do not want to deliver best results for this province, then maybe they should work for another province," he said.

The Alward government announced in the throne speech that more cuts are coming in the upcoming March budget.

Alward has already committed to cutting the number of MLAs to 49 from 55.

The finance minister unveiled on Dec. 13 a $948-million capital budget.

The capital budget set aside $544 million for the Route 1 highway project and $404 million for ongoing capital projects. Higgs said only $24 million would be set aside for new capital projects, which is a reduction from $42 million in new project funding in the 2011-12 capital budget.