New Brunswick

Here are 7 nuggets from the provincial budget to start your day

New Brunswick’s debt was the main talking point from Tuesday’s provincial budget announcement, but here are some other newsworthy items to consider.

Budgets are big and there are plenty of details that may be overlooked

Finance Minister Ernie Steeves delivered the first budget of the PC minority government on March 19. (Maria Jose Burgos/CBC)

New Brunswick's debt was the main talking point from Tuesday's provincial budget announcement.

The provincial government will pay down part of the accumulated debt for the first time in 13 years, Finance Minister Ernie Steeves said.

And the CBC News team was there to offer comprehensive coverage of the big news.

Our stories examined the debt and the projected $23 million surplus.

They considered the lowered expectations for the New Brunswick economy.

They touched on some major changes to financial assistance for post-secondary education.

They described the effect of increasing the auditor general's budget.

The 2019 provincial government budget distilled

5 years ago
Duration 1:11
These are the key takeaways.

But budgets are big, and there are plenty of nuggets that may be overlooked. Here are seven items worth considering:

So long, front licence plate

The People's Alliance can check this one off its to-do list. The Tory government announced Tuesday it will be eliminating the front licence plate on motor vehicles. The decision comes into effect in April.

The Tories reached into the Alliance's playbook when making this campaign pledge in September.

"It's good to see the government is acting on this recommendation," said People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin in a statement Tuesday.

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he was pleased to see the front licence plate will be eliminated. (CBC)

"However, we feel more can be done, including biannual vehicle inspections and a one-time vehicle registration for all personal motor vehicles."

Premier Blaine Higgs said during a September campaign stop that the party would allow for vehicle registration every two years, but that didn't appear in Tuesday's budget.

Women's Council budget cut

The budget revealed a massive cut to the New Brunswick Women's Council funding. The council, which furthers gender-equality in the province, saw last year's $821,000 budget reduced to $429,000 for the upcoming fiscal year.

Steeves said the council's 2018-19 budget was double what was typically allocated.

"It really didn't seem to be used as much as it should, and so we decided to move it back to where it was two years ago," said Steeves. The council spent $671,000 of the $821,000 budget.

"But certainly we value all the work of the Women's Council," he added.

Higgs's 2011 budget, when he was finance minister, eliminated the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women. In 2013, the Tories introduced the Voices of New Brunswick Women Consensus-Building Forum, which was criticized for being a shell of the former arm's-length agency.

The Liberal government passed legislation in 2016 to create the stronger, more independent Women's Council.

Beth Lyons, executive director of the New Brunswick Women's Council, is wondering if the province performed a gender-based analysis on the provincial budget. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

Beth Lyons, the council's executive director, declined to comment on the budget cut until being able to speak with council members.

Lyons said she has many questions for the government on other issues, including whether the budget underwent a gender-based analysis and, if so, was it used to inform decision-making.

The council also wants to find out the status of funding for the implementation of a new sexual violence framework. In August 2018, the Liberals announced $1.425 million over two years (and $1.6 million in 2020-21) in funding for the framework to examine prevention and response strategies.

Climate change fund

New Brunswick's ill-fated carbon pricing plan proposed redirecting 2.3 cents of the existing 15.5-cent-per-litre gas tax revenue into a fund for climate change projects. The plan, which was geared to avoid passing the cost to consumers, was ultimately rejected by Ottawa and the federal backstop was imposed.

Consumers will see increased costs at the pumps in April, though the provincial government is fighting the federal carbon tax along with Saskatchewan and Ontario.

Since April 1, 2018, gas revenue of $37.4 million was directed into the provincial climate change fund. But that's going to stop. According to the 2019-20 provincial budget, no more revenue will be allocated to the fund.

The fund was roundly criticized for being no more than an accounting exercise. The vast majority of the fund was not going to be spent on new climate programs.

Nurse practitioner pilot

A nurse with rubber gloves holds a piece of paper.
The pilot nurse practitioner clinic in the Moncton area could serve as a model for other regions where patients don't have primary caregivers, the finance minister said. (CBC)

The provincial government is creating a new primary health-care clinic in the Moncton area staffed mainly by nurse practitioners.

The clinic, which will fall under the Horizon Health Network, will be a pilot project for service delivery in a province where thousands of New Brunswickers don't have access to family doctors or nurse practitioners.

"Hopefully, this will be a model going forward," said Steeves, who could not provide a firm cost or timeline for the project on Tuesday.

The clinic will have the capacity to take on up to 6,000 patients once fully operational, he said. If successful, the province will open more of the centres.

Wage increases

Minimum-wage workers, early-childhood educators and home-support workers are in line for a pay bump in the upcoming fiscal year.

The provincial budget earmarked $16.1 million to increase wages for home-support workers, and $1 million for trained early-childhood educators.

The New Brunswick Coalition for Pay Equity said the money for educators isn't enough to achieve pay equity and a far cry from the $28 million over four years pledged by the previous Liberal government. 

"It is clear that at this rate, early childhood educators will not achieve pay equity for decades," said coalition president Frances LeBlanc in a statement.

"Social and community services are the social infrastructure on which rely families and the broader New Brunswick economy. These services are critical to support women and men's full and equal participation in the labour market."

And on April 1, the minimum wage will increase 25 cents to $11.50 per hour. That would place New Brunswick ninth out of the 13 provinces and territories, according to the Retail Council of Canada.

By April 1, only Newfoundland and Labrador, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will have a lower minimum wage. Nova Scotia's minimum wage for inexperienced workers will be $11.05, while experienced workers will receive $11.55.

Flood funding rises

In 2018-19, the Liberal government budgeted $12 million for the security and emergency division of the Department of Public Safety. Within that division is the emergency measures organization and the provincial disaster financial assistance program.

By the end of the year, that figure was overshot by $74.6 million.

The reason: the historic spring flood that devastated communities and displaced hundreds of New Brunswickers.

Flood levels in New Brunswick reached historic levels last spring. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

The security and emergency division budget increased nearly four times in the 2019-20 budget to $44.2 million. Steeves said it's not for remaining damage claims but simply "planning ahead."

"We hope for a good season, but there's a lot of snow up north and it's just starting to melt," he said.

The province launched its River Watch program last week, and the New Brunswick Emergency Measures Organization is advising people to be careful around waterways because the ice is weakening.

Minimal civil service cuts

The civil service will remain relatively intact for the next fiscal year.

Steeves announced there would be about 100 civil servant jobs lost as a result of the new budget — mostly through attrition.

The Tories discussed reducing the size of the civil service on the election campaign trail, and Blaine Higgs committed in 2012, as finance minister, to reducing the number of civil servants.

The civil service, including education and health-care workers, dipped slightly in the subsequent years to 45,453 in 2016. By the end of 2017, the figure jumped to 46,508.