New Brunswick to spend more than expected on roads, schools and hospitals
2022-23 capital budget $77 million more than originally planned
The Higgs government is loosening the purse strings and will spend more taxpayer dollars than planned on the construction and maintenance of roads, bridges, schools and hospitals in the coming year.
Finance Minister Ernie Steeves says the province's bottom line, including two consecutive budget surpluses and a reduction in accumulated debt, will allow him to boost the amount devoted to infrastructure in 2022-23.
The province will spend $746.7 million, higher than the $668.7 million it had planned for 2022-23 in the five-year spending plan it set out a year ago.
"The improvement in our fiscal standing means that the increase in our budget is one that we can afford, and allows us to begin addressing our infrastructure deficit," he said in tabling the capital budget for next year.
Steeves described the spending level as an economic stimulus that will take the place of COVID-19 spending.
"New Brunswickers know that the level of pandemic-related support cannot continue at current levels," he said. "A boost in infrastructure spending will support a sustainable economic recovery as temporary pandemic support measures are removed."
It's a dramatic turn from 2018, when the Progressive Conservatives came to power and promptly cancelled more than $200 million in infrastructure projects planned by the previous Liberal government. Capital spending in 2019-20 was kept to $600 million.
They reduced the amount further the following year before raising it to $673 million for 2021-22. Some of the projects cancelled in 2018 were restored.
Steeves called the new, bigger spending plan "the result of the hard work we have undertaken over the last three years."
He said the spending would generate $550 million in economic growth and about 6,500 jobs.
Among the amounts:
$338.9 million for highway, road and bridge maintenance, up from $307.7 million.
$153.2 million for health-care infrastructure, up from $128.2 million.
$84.7 million for education and early childhood infrastructure, up from $72.6 million.
Details on specific projects will be revealed in individual departmental estimates still to be tabled.
"There'll be some news on some new spending," Steeves said.
He mentioned only a few highlights in his speech, including continuing work on Miramichi's Centennial Bridge, new schools in Fredericton and Moncton and a new courthouse in Fredericton, all of them announced in previous years.
The opening of the spending taps is happening in the wake of a difficult fall for the Higgs PCs.
Support for the premier and his party have plunged in polls taken following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in July and a spike in cases. That was followed by a two-week strike by 20,000 public sector workers.
The province recorded a $408.5 million surplus in 2020-21 and is projecting an $89.1 million surplus this year, reducing the province's accumulated debt to $13.4 billion rather than the $14.1 billion forecast last March.
Steeves's revised five-year capital spending plan now lays out an even bigger amount for 2023-24 — $864.8 million.
That's about the same amount in the last Liberal capital budget that the PCs denounced as fiscally irresponsible.
"Thank you for following some of our steps in terms of wanting to invest," said Opposition Liberal Leader Roger Melanson after Steeves's speech.
Melanson said the capital budget "certainly identifies some of the key areas where money needs to be invested" but accused the Higgs government of passing on the chance to build even more with the help of federal infrastructure funding.
He said mentions of the twinning of Route 11 and a new bridge between Shippagan and Lamèque were noticeably absent from Steeves's speech.
Melanson told reporters that there should also have been spending to improve ventilation in schools and hospitals because of COVID-19.
Green Party Leader David Coon criticized the lack of spending to reinforce infrastructure to withstand increasingly extreme weather.
People's Alliance Leader Kris Austin said the government was striking "a good balance" with the spending.