Ruling Liberals probe cuts their PC predecessors didn't make in 2014

Two top education officials found themselves drawn into Liberal pre-election positioning during a legislative committee hearing Thursday, with one MLA raising the spectre of school closures if the Progressive Conservatives take power.

MLAs question 2 deputy ministers about planned education budget cuts from 2014-15

John McLaughlin, left, and Gerald Richard answered questions about $25 million in budget cuts that didn't happen. (CBC )

Two top education officials found themselves drawn into Liberal pre-election positioning during a legislative committee hearing Thursday, with one MLA raising the spectre of school closures if the Progressive Conservatives take power next year.

According to the government's minister of finance, now the leader of the opposition, had they won the election they would have went ahead with these cuts.- Chuck Chiasson, Liberal MLA

The two deputy ministers took questions on more than $25 million in cuts to education that were supposed to happen in 2014-15 but never did.

The cuts were ordered by the Progressive Conservative government of David Alward but fell victim to what current PC Opposition Leader Blaine Higgs says were electoral calculations.

John McLaughlin, the deputy minister of the anglophone education system, said the cancelled cuts included "closing schools or sections of schools."

Encouraged to speculate

Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson tried to get McLaughlin and his francophone counterpart Gérald Richard to confirm that if the Tories had been re-elected in September, 2014, the cuts — including school closures — would have gone ahead.

"Had the election not happened, you would have been tasked to achieve 25 million?" asked Victoria-La Vallée Liberal MLA Chuck Chiasson.

Richard didn't directly answer but simply said the department wasn't able to achieve the cuts.

"It would have been quite a task then," Chiasson responded, "and it's interesting to note that according to the government's minister of finance, now the leader of the opposition, had they won the election they would have went ahead with these cuts.

"So not very good there."

'Extreme budget cuts'

In a statement released one year before the election, Premier Brian Gallant said Higgs was from the "extreme right wing" of the spectrum and would bring in "extreme budget cuts" if elected.

"The Liberals have been telegraphing for some time their intention to campaign on fear and misinformation," PC MLA Jeff Carr said Thursday, "and I don't mind telegraphing that we will be campaigning on a better New Brunswick for New Brunswickers."

Is closing down a rural school going to balance the books? Absolutely not.- Blaine Higgs, PC leader

The Liberal attack line was inspired by an internal document obtained by CBC News earlier this year. It listed cuts that never happened under the PC government's Program Management Office, a team of outside consultants.

The document showed $17.9 million in cuts in the Education Department that didn't happen because of what it called "deferred decisions and timing."

Higgs said in June the PC government hesitated to make the cuts just before going to the polls.

"Election years are even worse than normal in terms of making decisions to actually do something," he said.

If the PCs had won in 2014, "absolutely they'd have come back," Higgs said.

But he added: "Most likely it wouldn't all be implemented. … Is closing down a rural school going to balance the books? Absolutely not."

Part of 'process improvement'

\Appearing at the public accounts committee Thursday, Richard and John McLaughlin, the deputy minister in the anglophone school system, said they were given a $9.7 million target for spending cuts in 2014-15 under the PC government's process improvement initiative.

They were going to find that money in areas such as IT operations and managing staff absences, they said.

Under questioning from Chiasson, the two deputy ministers confirmed they were supposed to find the additional $17.9 million for the Program Management Office, as the internal document said.

But those cuts didn't happen either.

"I suppose you dodged a bullet with the election," Chiasson said.

Richard said because the cuts didn't happen, the department ended up with a shortfall of more than $26 million in 2014-15.