PCs pledge to erase deficit in 2 years — without cuts to health or education
Blaine Higgs unveils platform, as Liberals dredge up 5-year-old consultant's report to throw him off
Progressive Conservative Leader Blaine Higgs says he can eliminate the province's budget deficit two years from now without cutting health or education.
That commitment is one of several new promises in the PC election platform that Higgs released in full in Moncton on Tuesday. The document mostly recaps commitments he has already made.
But it does include new promises, including a vow that — assuming the Liberal government forecast of a $187 million deficit in 2018-19 is accurate — Higgs would balance the books in his government's 2020-21 budget.
That and other measures would save $538 million during his mandate, Higgs said.
He said the positions would be eliminated solely through retirements. "Anyone who has a job today, they don't need to worry about it," he said. "We're not going into this thing of cutting and hacking. We don't need to."
The reason our province suffers is because people are trying to buy votes during the campaign. I've said I won't do it. I haven't done it. If I don't get elected, so be it. - Blaine Higgs, Progressive Conservative leader
He also said the positions to be eliminated would only be in Part 1 of the public service, employees of government departments, and would not include teachers or nurses.
"We can fulfil this," Higgs said. "We don't need to make these cuts and all that stuff. We just need to get value for the money that's being spent. It's not difficult."
Daniel Légère, the president of CUPE NB, dismissed Higgs's plan to cut jobs as harmful to families.
"Last time I checked, our population's needs did not shrink," Légère said. "Higgs's regressive-conservative vision is against the times and against hard-working families."
The platform says a PC government would reduce the deficit by at least $125 million per year.
"This means, if the current deficit projection of $187 million is correct, the provincial budget will be balanced in the second budget of our mandate," it says.
That's when the Liberals originally planned to eliminate the deficit, but Finance Minister Cathy Rogers said this year she would push that back by one year, to 2021-22, in favour of more spending on programs such as child care and nursing home renovations.
No big promises
Higgs has refused to make such large and expensive promises. He repeated Tuesday his belief that elections are vote-buying exercises that drive up future spending and said he would not indulge in it.
"The reason our province suffers is because people are trying to buy votes during the campaign," he said. "I've said I won't do it. I haven't done it. If I don't get elected, so be it."
Liberal campaign spokesperson Greg Byrne questioned Higgs's claim that the budget can be balanced in two years without cuts in health care and education. He said that's where most of the new jobs in the public service have been created under the Liberal government.
"Does anyone really accept that Mr. Higgs is just going to tinker around the ends of things based on his previous expressions and his previous agenda?" Byrne asked.
Liberals attack over proposed cuts
The Liberals tried to throw Higgs off his game Tuesday by releasing an internal consultants' report just hours before the PC platform launch.
The 2013 report by Ernst & Young laid out a series of options for the Department of Education and Early Childhood Development to reduce its budget. Among the proposals are the elimination of 545 teaching positions and the closure of up to 79 schools.
"These particular cuts are staggering in their magnitude," Byrne said.
The document says the province could save $19.1 million in operating costs and $22.7 to $55.3 million in future maintenance costs if the 79 schools were closed.
The Liberals called the document Higgs's "secret plan" but the 80-page report merely gives more detail of proposals in another document obtained and reported on by CBC News last year. A Liberal campaign spokesperson claimed the document came "from a whistle-blower."
$32 million in cancelled cuts
After the PCs lost the 2014 election to the Liberals, Higgs acknowledged that the Tory government had cancelled $32.2 million in planned education cuts because of the looming campaign.
"Absolutely, they'd have come back" if the PCs had been re-elected in 2014, he said last year.
The Liberals used that phrase Tuesday to question whether a Tory government would revive the proposal to cut. Higgs has blamed his PC colleagues for blocking cuts because they were worried about the political fallout.
Now that Higgs wants to be premier, "he'll be the man pulling the trigger, so he would have to explain to people whether he's going to continue to pursue this agenda," Byrne said.
Higgs reacted angrily to the release. He called it "an outright lie" that he'd bring back the proposals.
"I didn't make those cuts then, when I was in government then as a minister, and I'm not making them now."
He condemned Liberal Leader Brian Gallant for "dishonesty [and] manipulation" in releasing the document and said the premier will "break any rule to save his job — the first and only real job he's ever had."