Unprecedented day in legislature as budget, carbon tax bills pass in 17 minutes
Green leader's vote was key to getting the budget passed and avoiding spring election
In a series of high-speed procedural votes, the New Brunswick legislature passed the Higgs government's budget Friday afternoon, clearing the way for politicians and civil servants to turn their full attention to the COVID-19 outbreak.
MLAs crammed what would normally take weeks of debate, committee sessions and votes into a 17-minute blitz that also passed the government's carbon-tax legislation.
But the most dramatic turn of events was a 24-0 vote in which the budget passed, guaranteeing there will be no provincial election this spring.
PC and People's Alliance MLAs were joined by Green Leader David Coon in voting for the motion. All Liberals, as well as Green members Kevin Arseneau and Megan Mitton and independent MLA Robert Gauvin, abstained.
"I have never been prouder to be part of this assembly than I am right today," Premier Blaine Higgs declared when the voting was over.
He praised all MLAs for allowing the votes to move quickly and gave them a guarantee on an issue that first led the Opposition Liberals to push for an early election: health reforms announced and then cancelled in February.
"There's been a lot of angst created over the past few weeks and months over the 24-hour emergency care in these rural hospitals," he said.
"I want to set the record straight: there will be emergency services 24/7 in these hospitals, but we will be facing together what our challenges are in the health system. And I'm asking for the same co-operation that we've seen today to work together for solutions."
Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers told reporters the party abandoned its hard line against the budget because of the COVID-19 crisis.
"Today is a day for all of us to come together to ensure the health and safety of our citizens," he said.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin called it "a historic moment."
The vote on the carbon tax had to happen before April 1. Without it passing, the higher federal carbon tax would have remained in effect in New Brunswick.
The legislature promptly adjourned so that Higgs could take part in a conference call with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and the other Canadian premiers.
PC house leader Glen Savoie said the house will return Tuesday as planned but added the weekend would give officials the chance to sort out what has to happen next.
That, and the rushed carbon-tax vote, suggests the house may not sit beyond Tuesday.
Coon's decision pivotal
The budget vote became a foregone conclusion Friday morning when Coon said he would not vote against it.
Coon said there are elements of the budget that represent "progress," and he wanted to see them passed so that his party can use its newfound leverage in the legislature to improve them and push for more.
"This is a minority government where my colleagues and I in the Green caucus hold the balance of responsibility," he said. "We don't need to trust this government to safeguard the public good. Not a single piece of legislation can pass without our support."
"I know many have lost trust in Premier Higgs, and many lack confidence in [Liberal leader] Kevin Vickers. … I ask that you trust me. We have your back, New Brunswick."
Shortly after his announcement, Coon and the other three party leaders in the legislature huddled to discuss accelerating the budget vote. Negotiations dragged on from around noon to just after 2 p.m.
One item of business that might need to come before MLAs on Tuesday is legislation to postpone municipal elections scheduled for May 11.
Chief electoral officer Kim Poffenroth issued a statement Friday saying that given the elections will require hundreds of thousands of people to vote in polling stations staffed by thousands of election workers, "there are obvious concerns over public safety."
She said there is no "easy solution" to reduce the risk of infection but that under the Local Governance Act she doesn't have the power to postpone the vote without the legislature passing amendments.