What to expect in Quebec's first budget since the pandemic struck

Finance Minister Eric Girard told reporters it will be a "classic budget" — with a focus on health care, education and reviving the economy. The circumstances, however, are anything but, as the province seeks to climb out of a fiscal hole after a year of forced closures and curfews.

The province is expected to lay down roadmap for how to get out its fiscal hole

Quebec Finance Minister Eric Girard tries on a pair of locally purchased running shoes in preparation for Thursday's provincial budget. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

As he laced up a fresh pair of running shoes at a local Quebec City shoe store on Wednesday, Finance Minister Eric Girard told reporters Thursday's budget will be a "classic budget" — with a focus on health care, education and reviving the economy.

The circumstances, however, are anything but, as the province seeks to climb out of a fiscal hole after a year of forced business closures and curfews.

Quebec has projected a $15-billion deficit for 2020-21 and a six per cent growth in GDP.

But Girard has said the budget will contain a plan for eliminating the deficit within five years, as is required under provincial law. 

He has also promised his deficit-reduction plan won't involve any tax increases or cuts to health care — something experts have said will be difficult to do, even if the economy, as expected, revs back up.

Girard offered only a hint Wednesday of some of the specifics coming today: a $125-million fund for sports-related infrastructure in schools.

The emphasis, he said, would be on making sure the economy gets back on track.

"The message today was to support our small businesses and to note the resilience of the small businesses during the pandemic."

A year later, a whole new plan

Last year, Girard tabled what was billed as a "green budget" on March 10, a day before the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the economy booming, the province set aside more money for health care and education and promised to invest more in measures aimed at reducing greenhouse gases.

The seismic changes that followed meant that much of the document was almost immediately rendered useless.

Thursday's budget will be made public at around 4 p.m., when Girard delivers his speech.

In contrast to previous years, when hundreds of journalists, politicians, economists and pressure groups attended a lockup in Quebec City, this year's event will be largely held online, except for a small group still meeting in the provincial capital.

Luc Godbout, a Université de Sherbrooke professor of taxation and public finance, said he expects a "prudent" budget this time around, despite projections the Quebec economy is set to rebound.

There's still much uncertainty surrounding the pandemic and the resulting health-care costs, he said.

Quebec already warned in its economic update last November that it will post deficits of $8.3 billion and $7 billion, respectively, over the next two years.

Mia Homsy, director and economist at the Institut du Québec, has projected the COVID-19 pandemic could translate into a loss of around $36 billion over five years for the province's public finances.

With files from Radio-Canada's Mélanie Meloche-Holubowski


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