Newfoundland and Labrador Finance Minister Jerome Kennedy says he knows that cuts that will be unveiled in the next provincial budget could have repercussions for the governing Progressive Conservatives.
"What we're doing is politically risky," Kennedy said Thursday in Carbonear during the opening day of pre-budget consultations. "Because to do the right thing is not always the thing that gets you votes."
Kennedy dropped a bombshell this week when he revealed that current projections have the provincial debt set to climb by about $4 billion in just the next couple of years.
Kennedy said he will not tolerate that much red ink.
"I've indicated that there will have to be spending cuts this year, and we will have to look at ways of reducing the deficit," he said.
Kennedy is looking for suggestions on how the government can spend less, even as he is lobbied to retain spending for various services.
"I'm not surprised that people are not coming forward saying, 'Well, we have to cut this and cut that.' Again, that's not the way I expected this to proceed."
Cases made for funding
Kennedy was indeed given suggestions during the Carbonear session of how government should spend its money.
"Simply put, Minister Kennedy, if we do not obtain sustainable core funding, this office will close," said Cathy Kleinwort, who works with the Baccalieu Trail Seniors Outreach program.
Jeff Bourne, the co-ordinator of U-Turn Addictions Drop-in, said the demand for service from his voluntary organization has come to the point where paid staff are now needed.
"Most people we talk to in drug addiction, who are under the age of 25 — listen to this — under the age of 25, in this area, [are] using it intravenously. Nine out of 10 people," Bourne told the Carbonear hearing.
NAPE president skeptical
Meanwhile, the president of Newfoundland and Labrador's largest public sector union said Kennedy's grim budget prediction should not be taken at face value.
"I'm always amazed when I hear government talk about the projections for the future," NAPE president Carol Furlong said.
"In the last six years, they haven't been right once, so their credibility on that issue is almost non-existent."
NAPE and other unions are in the midst of negotiations with the provincial government. Furlong believes that Kennedy's tough talk is directly connected to the talks, which are aimed at replacing contracts that expired last March.
NAPE has launched its own communications offensive against the government, pointing out that the government has both been touting the province's strong economic growth while warning of a lack of money for its own expenditures.
"It's absolutely amazing," Furlong said. "On one hand, they keep telling us we have lots of money, like he's saying, 'this is an investment' and 'we have the money for it.' On the other hand, they're saying we have no money. What the heck are they doing with the money, if that's the case?"
Kennedy will be chairing 11 more budget consultations, including one on Friday in St. John's.