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Finance Minister Blaine Higgs will start his annual pre-budget meetings in Saint John on Jan. 24. ((CBC))

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs will begin his latest round of pre-budget consultations later in January and it will be a chance to see if the Alward government can keep its pledge to balance the budget before the next election.

The province’s finance minister was candid in the legislature before Christmas about the gloomy economic news facing the province.

"While not foreseeable, these revenue decreases have led to budget shortfalls that need to be addressed," he said in December.

The last quarterly financial projection suggested the province’s deficit could hit $356-million, which is almost twice as much as had been forecast in March.

The provincial government is struggling with a sharp decline in tax revenue.

The growing budget deficit could make it difficult for Premier David Alward to keep his election campaign commitment to eliminate the deficit by 2014.

The Alward government's throne speech did not repeat the promise to erase the deficit by 2014 nor did the premier when he spoke to reporters before the holidays.

"What I can say, there's no secret that things are difficult," he said in December.

In March, Higgs predicted the 2012-13 deficit would be $183 million and the 2013-14 deficit would be $99 million.

Higgs also indicated in his budget how the provincial government would have a razor-thin $6-million surplus in 2014-15, which would come just in time for the provincial election.

If there still is a deficit heading into the next campaign it'll be a major blow to Alward and Higgs, who have based their entire approach to government on what they call "rebuilding" the province's finances.

In his statement to announce the pre-budget consultations, Higgs did not give a clear promise to return to a balanced budget.

"Returning to balanced budgets is a multi-year process and requires the support of New Brunswickers," Higgs said in a statement.

Pre-budget consultations

  • Jan. 24: Saint John
  • Jan. 28: Moncton
  • Jan. 29: Tracadie-Sheila (1:30 p.m.)
  • Jan. 29: Miramichi (6:30 p.m.)
  • Feb. 6: Campbellton
  • Feb. 7: Fredericton

The upcoming consultations — which start on Jan. 24 in Saint John and end on Feb. 7 in Fredericton — will give New Brunswickers a chance to express their views on how the budget should be crafted.

These meetings also give citizens a chance to hear directly from the finance minister.

Last year's pre-budget consultations featured the finance minister’s memorable comment about how election campaigns contribute to big deficits.

"It's a case when politicians are the most vulnerable and everybody says `I'll get 'em to promise this,’" Higgs said last year.

Finance ministers are required by the Fiscal Responsibility and Balanced Budget Act to hold annual pre-budget consultations.