A former Progressive Conservative finance minister is criticizing how the Alward government has tackled the province's finances, saying Finance Minister Blaine Higgs should have moved faster to cut spending.
Jeannot Volpé said on Wednesday in an interview with Radio-Canada that Higgs was successful two years ago in persuading the public of the need for spending cuts.
But Volpé said the provincial government did not move swiftly to cut spending and reduce the deficit.
"Maybe there were good reasons, but there didn't seem to be the will to move quickly — it was, ‘Let's check the studies that have already been done three times,’ and after a year and a half, nothing had been done," Volpé said in the interview.
Volpé served as Bernard Lord’s finance minister between 2003 and 2006 and the interim Progressive Conservative leader until David Alward was elected in his party's leadership convention in 2008.
He was also named by Alward as a co-chairperson of the government's energy commission in 2010.
The Progressive Conservative government inherited a massive deficit after the 2010 election. Higgs began talking about the need for significant government reform to wrestle down the deficit soon after taking office.
The Tories had promised in the 2010 election to balance the budget by 2014. However, Higgs admitted last week that goal is not likely to be achieved considering the deteriorating financial situation.
The provincial deficit stands at $356-million, nearly double the amount Higgs forecasted in March.
The finance minister has blamed declining government revenues on the growing deficit.
Volpé said one reason why the deficit may not have been attacked earlier in the mandate is because Higgs didn't get the support he needed around the cabinet table.
"There has to be someone at another level who can really make the ministers and everyone aware of the point we've reached," Volpé said, likely referring to the premier.
"And now we're approaching the next election. It'll be more and more difficult. You do this in the first year, not the fourth."
Alward said on Wednesday that it is possible a referendum could be held before the 2014 election on increasing the HST by two percentage points and imposing highway tolls. Those two measures could add $300 million in revenue.
The finance minister has already discussed a health levy this week, which he said has been raised by some citizens. A health levy could raise $115 million in revenue for the cash-strapped province.
This isn’t the first time that Volpé has spoken out against decisions taken by his former colleagues.
Last year, Volpé complained that Alward's decision to claw back MLA pension increases was unfair to him and other former members.
Point Lepreau decision 'would probably be different today'
The former Tory cabinet minister also reflected on a major decision that was made by the Lord government.
Volpé also said that in retrospect the decision to refurbish the Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station was likely the wrong decision.
He said the decision to refurbish Point Lepreau wouldn't be worth it today given the lower energy prices in North America.
"The decision would probably be different today," Volpé said.
Volpé was finance minister when the decision to refurbish Point Lepreau was made. However, he had also served as natural resources and energy minister in the Lord government.
He said the cost of the reactor, even if amortized over the 25-year life of the plant, will have to be added to either the debt, which could affect NB's credit rating, or to power rates.
"There's going to have to be some big decisions taken," he said.
Due to the costs of Point Lepreau, he said he doesn't believe power rate increases can be held to two per cent as the Alward government is telling ratepayers.
The refurbishment project ended up being three years late and $1 billion over budget.
NB Power says the refurbished nuclear reactor will provide 25 to 30 years of power.
NB Power is now looking at cutting $1 billion in the utility's debt in the next decade.