FREDERICTON — New Brunswick’s Tory premier is vowing to balance the current books and next year’s budget, without raising taxes, in an effort to get the province’s finances under control and lessen reliance on federal transfers.
Blaine Higgs made the commitment Thursday night as he delivered his first state of the province address to a business audience in Fredericton since being sworn in as premier last November.
“Balancing the budget should not be a partisan issue. It should be a basic expectation of government,” Higgs said.
The previous Liberal government delivered a small surplus last year, the first in a decade.
New Brunswick has a net debt of $13.9 billion and Higgs said the province pays seven cents out of every tax dollar in interest.
Higgs said the province is too reliant on public money to keep the economy going, and it’s a problem that must be corrected.
“We want to grow the private economy so it can pay for the public services that we want. And we can tax everyone less,” Higgs said.
And he said there is a sense of urgency to make the changes.
“I see a province that has said yes to taxes and no to industry so often that we are sending the next generation out west to do jobs that we have turned away here at home,” he told the crowd.
Higgs said he’s calling for an era of “big citizenship” where private business drives the economy.
“We need a big citizenship that doesn’t ask ‘How does this help me?’ but asks instead ‘How can we move New Brunswick forward?”
Part of that, he said, is reducing New Brunswick’s reliance on federal funding. Right now, 36 per cent of the provincial budget comes from federal transfer payments.
He said that means that huge parts of the economy and the social safety net depend on decisions that others make.
However, Higgs said he’s calling on the federal government to provide support for priorities that drive the province forward, rather than directing federal money towards ribbon cuttings and good news announcements.
“We need to change the belief that every time Ottawa offers us a 50-50 funding project, we need to take the deal or we are losing money.”
His comment comes just a day after pulling the plug on financing for the 2021 Francophonie Games because of escalating costs and Ottawa’s funding formula.
Kirsty Duncan, the federal sports minister, was critical of the decision, saying that Higgs was “leaving federal dollars on the table.”
Higgs also used his speech to repeat his criticism of Quebec for standing in the way of the construction of a revived Energy East pipeline to move oil from the west to Eastern Canada and a refinery and export terminal in New Brunswick.
He said Quebec wants to look at transmission lines to allow them to sell electricity to the New England market.
“As a Canadian, I want that for them too. But it won’t be a one-way exchange,” he said.
“I will expect equal concern from them for our economic future.”
Higgs touched on a variety of other topics including French immersion, the management of salmon stocks and social assistance.
The premier said he wants social workers to look for various solutions in an effort to break the welfare trap that keeps many people from getting jobs and breaking free of social assistance.
“If a ride, or child care, or a housing subsidy will help people break the welfare trap, we should be empowering social workers to find the right solution,” he said.
Higgs won a minority government last year. It is propped up by the three members of the People’s Alliance party who have promised to support the government on votes of confidence for at least 18 months.
Kevin Bissett, The Canadian Press