New Brunswick

Higgs lays out 6 priorities that could include cuts to programs

Premier Blaine Higgs has laid out a new plan that he says will change the way the provincial government operates — and that could include cuts to existing programs.

Plan unveiled on anniversary of minority win may be risky for PCs, but it's 'the right thing'

Premier Blaine Higgs said targets for the six priority areas will be developed by the departments involved. (CBC)

Premier Blaine Higgs has laid out a new plan that he says will change the way the provincial government operates — and that could include cuts to existing programs.

He sketched out the vision on the first anniversary of the provincial election that eventually brought him to power.

And while some of the details remain to be established, Higgs made it clear the decisions to come won't be universally popular.

"Will everyone be happy?" he said. "Absolutely not. I'm sure it will be challenging several months, years, as we move forward."

He said rather than spend more money, he might shift funding away from "programs that we are doing today that aren't getting results."

Asked if he has identified any government programs that could be cut, he answered: "Let's just say I think they're out there, yes."

Lack of climate change action criticized

Liberal Leader Kevin Vickers called the announcement a repackaging of last fall's throne speech from the Progressive Conservative government, with few clear targets.

"Everybody keeps talking about the premier's plan," Vickers said. "I'd like to ask: where is the premier's plan? I don't see a plan."

He also criticized the premier for not making climate change one of his priorities.

"This is not leadership. … This is a government that has nothing but one plan, which is to balance the budget with cuts that make no sense."

Higgs said at his news conference that climate change mitigation measures would be part of the plan.

7 'economic hubs'

He presented the outline to reporters after the caucus held a three-day retreat last week in which ministers and MLAs mapped out the coming months.

The premier said he would push forward with municipal reforms, talking at length about the idea of seven "economic hubs," anchored by cities, that might replace the 12 regional service commissions now in place.

He said 341 local government entities for a population of 760,000 people was a "staggering" number.

It's not going to be an easy discussion but we're going to have it, and we're going to deal with it, because we must.- Blaine Higgs, premier

"Our model is not sustainable for the long-term future."

Under the "hub" model, proposed by the mayors of the province's eight cities, those centres would "support" other communities within a defined radius.

Higgs said it might be a way to resolve the continuing tug-of-war between cities and adjacent communities over taxation and services.

"It's not going to be an easy discussion but we're going to have it, and we're going to deal with it, because we must."

The premier acknowledged that, with a minority government, he may not be able to pass everything he wants and that some of his actions might even trigger an early election.

The People's Alliance has promised to help the Progressive Conservatives stay in power until the spring of next year by voting with them on confidence and budget votes.

But Higgs said he would not use the risk of a defeat as an excuse for doing nothing.

Wants measurable improvements

"We could procrastinate and say there's our reason for not acting," he said.

"But one of the key resolves in our caucus retreat is we're going to do the right thing, and we're going to move forward,  and we'll just believe that doing the right thing, and people understanding it, will help us to continue."

Higgs laid out six areas — government spending, health care, education, deregulation to spur business, local communities, and the civil service — where he says he wants measurable improvements.

But for most of them, no actual targets were provided other than general goals such as reducing wait times or improving student test scores.

Higgs said the targets will be developed by individual departments.

In some areas, the province has already put out targets. Last month it announced a population growth strategy that would see the number of immigrants rise each year to 7,500 by 2024, a third of them francophones, along with a retention rate of 85 per cent.

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