New Brunswick

Month-long delay of New Brunswick's fiscal update 'surprising,' says economist

It’s been more than a month since the Higgs government scheduled and then cancelled a fiscal update that would have provided a fresh look at the size of the provincial deficit or surplus.

Union believes new budget numbers could show surplus in midst of wage dispute

Fiscal update was cancelled the day before Premier Blaine Higgs's government walked away from negotiations with CUPE. (Government of New Brunswick)

It's been more than a month since the New Brunswick government scheduled and then cancelled a fiscal update that would have provided a fresh look at the size of the provincial deficit or surplus.

The first-quarter report, covering the period from April to June, would be the first chance for New Brunswickers to see if the ever-changing economic impact of COVID-19 was looking better or worse.

But a planned Sept. 2 briefing and news conference never happened.

Economist Richard Saillant said Monday it's alarming that an entire month had passed with no indication of when the numbers would be released. 

"It is quite surprising that the government would cancel an event that was previously scheduled, and as far as I know not provide an explanation for doing so. They've had a month to do so." 

Economist Richard Saillant says Ottawa's billions of dollars in new help to the provinces for health care could have a big impact on New Brunswick's fiscal update. (Daniel St-Louis)

Provincial spokesperson Dave MacLean did not explain why the Sept. 2 release was cancelled. But late on Monday he said it will take place Oct. 13.

The public updates have been a fixture since Premier Blaine Higgs was finance minister a decade ago. The first-quarter numbers usually come out in August.

In fact, in 2014 Higgs introduced legislation, later repealed, that required the updates to happen within 60 days of June 30, the end of the first quarter of the fiscal year.

"They need to explain," said Opposition Liberal leader Roger Melanson. "They need to give us the information." 

Surplus on this horizon?

The abrupt cancellation on Sept. 2 was just a day before the province walked away from wage negotiations with 10 locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

At the time, Higgs said the province's last offer was "affordable to New Brunswick taxpayers who will ultimately foot the bill."

Progressive Conservative Finance Minister Ernie Steeves projected a $244.8 million deficit when he delivered his budget in March.

It forecast that conditional grants from the federal government would drop back to $357 million this year after leaping to $599 million in 2020-21 to help the provinces cope with COVID-19.

But Saillant noted that not long after the provincial budget, Ottawa announced billions of dollars in new help to the provinces for health care.

He said this new injection of cash, plus higher tax revenue from a recovering economy, may have put the province on track for a sizeable surplus.

"We are of the same opinion that things are not as dire as predicted," said CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost. 

"We too within the CUPE world feel there's more money there than what the premier was originally anticipating." 

Sailliant said that without the update, it's impossible to assess whether there's now more money available to meet union demands. 

"I'm not implying that this is what's happening, but I'm concerned that it could be about the political weaponization of the timing of such a release … particularly if we're talking about material changes to the government's fiscal position," Saillant said.

"There should be a requirement for timely disclosure."

Strike votes cast

Nine of the 10 CUPE locals who were in wage talks with the province have voted to go on strike, and the last one is voting Tuesday, CUPE said.

Drost said the union wrote to the premier last Friday asking the province to come back to the bargaining table.

Last December, Higgs asked public-sector unions to agree to four-year contracts with no wage increase in one year and wage increases of one per cent in each of the three remaining years.

CUPE New Brunswick president Stephen Drost says nine of the 10 CUPE locals who were in wage talks with the province have voted to strike. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

He said wage restraint was necessary because COVID-19 had pushed the province into a precarious financial position.

By late summer, the province was offering annual increases of 1.25 per cent over four years and then two per cent in the fifth and sixth years of contracts.

But in the government wanted CUPE to agree to concessions, including converting members' pensions to the shared-risk model used elsewhere in the civil service and transferring about 100 union members to management positions.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. He grew up in Moncton and covered Parliament in Ottawa for the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. He has reported on every New Brunswick election since 1995 and won awards from the Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Newspaper Awards and Amnesty International. He is also the author of five non-fiction books about New Brunswick politics and history.

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