Liberal MLA may vote for PC budget, muddying party vow to topple government
Single vote could be the difference in whether Higgs government survives
The question of whether the Blaine Higgs Progressive Conservative government will fall in coming weeks just got more complicated as Liberal MLA Gerry Lowe said he may not vote against the budget if it includes a long-awaited new school for his riding and/or property tax reform for heavy industry.
"I have to look at the budget that comes out pertaining to the people that I represent in this riding," Lowe, who represents Saint John Harbour, said Friday.
"My desire to run was for a school and then a review of assessments for heavy industry, right. That was the whole reason I ran."
Lowe has served on a local committee attempting to bring the new school to the south central peninsula.
As a city councillor, he helped introduce a motion calling on the provincial government to reform the tax system for heavy industry.
Assessment rates for pulp mills were reduced in 2013, costing the municipality about $1.5 million a year in tax revenue.
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers has vowed to defeat the government at the first opportunity over the controversial health-care reforms. The first chance is expected to be the March 10 introduction of the budget.
Lowe is a "great member of our team and a fierce advocate for Saint John," Vickers said in an emailed statement Friday afternoon.
"He's very passionate about those two issues and rightly so, and I'm sure they'd get done much quicker under a Liberal government. I fully suspect Premier Higgs will put things into this budget in a desperate attempt to save his government.
"I also know Gerry's a smart man and knows that what Higgs says in a budget and what he does are two different things. Anyone in Sussex can confirm that."
J.P. Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John, said although the Higgs government is under fire for the failed rollout of the reforms, the situation marks the first real test for Vickers as Liberal leader.
"He didn't have much of a leadership campaign because there was no opposition," Lewis said. "So, now when you have something like this, it turns eyes to Vickers as well as Higgs in managing his caucus."
Lewis said not all of Vickers' MLAs may be on board with the pledge to bring down the government before seeing the budget, especially at time when no party has a clear path to a stable majority.
Premier says he's not buying votes
The premier told CBC News he's not buying votes.
"This isn't a situation where I'm trying to buy someone's vote," Higgs said. "People who vote for it will vote for it because it's the right thing to do and if Mr. Lowe votes for it because it's a good budget and it's the right thing to do, then good on him."
Higgs said neither of the two items are budget items per se, but he added his government is reviewing both issues.
The school would fall under the capital budget, which was released in the fall, but Higgs said he's spoken with community members and municipal leaders about the value of the project.
As for the property tax reforms, Higgs said the province is actively assessing all industries and examining fair taxation.
"These items are one that have been on our radar."
Counting the votes
Higgs leads a minority government with support from three People's Alliance MLAs. With the recent resignation of Shippigan-Lamèque-Miscou PC MLA Robert Gauvin, who now sits as an Independent, his government hangs by a thread.
But to defeat the government Vickers needs the support of all his MLAs, including Speaker Daniel Guitard, who would be expected to resign that position in advance of the vote.
Vickers would also need the support of all three Green Party members, which is not certain at this point.
This is not the first instance of party rebellion by Lowe as a first-term Liberal MLA.
In November 2018, he voted with the Higgs government in support of an amendment excluding the Sussex area from a moratorium on shale gas development.