Quebec budget 2015: Couillard government can't afford to get it wrong
Finance Minister Carlos Leitão feels the pressure to deliver on zero deficit promise
After a tumultuous fall and winter filled with protests against the province’s austerity measures and controversial changes in the health care system, municipal pensions and daycare fees, the budget tabled in the National Assembly on Thursday is one the Couillard government cannot afford to get wrong.
Finance Minister Carlos Leitão is expected to present Quebec's first zero deficit budget in six years.
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Leitão and the premier have said they do not want to increase the “fiscal burden” of Quebecers. That's the term the government uses to refer to the overall amount of taxes, fees and tariffs people pay.
That concept is open enough that it gives the government room to manoeuvre financially — to raise some fees while decreasing others.
The government staked a large part of its identity on getting Quebec’s financial house in order.
The premier and his ministers continuously trumpet “balancing the budget” as their priority. That makes Thursday’s stakes high for the Liberals.
In an interview with CBC, the finance minister admitted he has felt the pressure to deliver since the beginning.
“The pressure is always there," he said. “The gap was very wide, about $7 billion that we had to somehow make up to get to zero in 2015-16.”
The critical piece left in that quest is slashing another billion dollars.
Most of the money will come from cuts in the spending allotments to the health and education departments.
The government's job has been made easier in the last three months as revenues have out-paced expenditures.
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When journalists open the budget book on Thursday, they will be looking to see how Leitão got there and at what cost.
Recalibrating the system
Keep an eye out for any of the 71 recommendations put forward last week by tax expert Luc Godbout.
The University of Sherbrooke professor suggests the government make sweeping changes to the way Quebecers are taxed.
He would like to see the government lower income taxes and boost sales taxes and fees, including hiking the sales tax from 9.975 per cent to 11 per cent.
Godbout says recalibrating the system would benefit the middle class and make the system fairer.
He believes the net effect on revenue would be neutral for the government but would boost disposable income by $600 million.
We would like to make sure that we have as wide a consensus as possible- Finance Minister Carlos Leitão on public input on the Godbout report
Leitão says the government will embark on a province-wide consultation to get input from the public and stakeholder groups about Godbout’s advice after he presents the budget.
“We would like to make sure that we have as wide a consensus as possible," he said.
"The changes that are proposed are quite significant. And of course we cannot implement those changes if we are not able to build a wide support for that."
There is also pressure on Leitão to deliver this budget without too many hiccups.
Liberal ministers haven’t had a good run over the past few months.
Incidents like the CHUM saga involving the Health Minister Gaétan Barrette, the resignation of education minister Yves Bolduc, and mixed messaging from Premier Philippe Couillard and Justice Minister Stephanie Vallée on the timing of religious neutrality legislation have provided the opposition ample opportunity to attack the government.
And no matter what kind of budget Leitão delivers, the opposition will likely be on the attack. No budget is bullet-proof.
But if there is one area this government has staked its reputation on, it's the economy. So expectations are high for the finance minister to deliver.