FREDERICTON – Premier Blaine Higgs said in his first State of the Province address Thursday that his government will balance the budget this year without raising new taxes.
“With only two months remaining in the current fiscal year, we will balance the budget in 2018-19,” he said at the annual dinner hosted by the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce.
“We will not be raising new taxes for government coffers.”
The 2019-2020 budget, which will be tabled in the legislature on March 19, will also be balanced, Higgs said.
The government had originally projected a deficit of more than $130-million for 2018-19.
The fight against the carbon tax continues as Higgs also looks to cut the overall tax burden for businesses in the province. He previously said he will reduce the double tax on non-owner occupied properties by 50 per cent and eventually eliminate it, but he said that will only happen when there’s no deficit.
“We’re incredibly reliant on public money to keep the economy going. And that is the problem.”
Instead of relying on taxes for revenues, Higgs said the government plans to grow the private economy, which will in turn help pay for public services, and in the process allow the government to reduce citizens’ taxes.
“Our goal is to find ways to reduce the cost of business operations, reduce the cost of personal taxes, so people will feel like investing in our province,” he said.
All of these efforts will make the province more financially independent because, ideally, New Brunswick wouldn’t need transfer payments from Ottawa to fund its operations, Higgs said.
To address the labour shortage in the province, Higgs suggested revamping the social welfare system so more people on social assistance can get to work. This could mean the government helping pay for people in remote communities to travel to their workplaces, for childcare or housing, or other incentives.
Higgs didn’t mention immigration in his address but spoke about it briefly in a question-and-answer session with Fredericton Chamber of Commerce CEO Krista Ross.
The premier said immigration remains a priority for this government to fill vacancies. He said the key to successful immigration is to bring in groups of people and their families to make their integration into the local community easier.
“They’re coming from far away, it’s a pretty strange environment, I’m sure, to move into a little community. And we know that little communities are pretty tight-knit and it takes a while to break in. So that’s a barrier. Let’s change that,” he said.
Natural resources development on the agenda
Higgs also said the province needs to develop its natural gas resources in areas where there is community support.
“The number one way we can achieve financial independence comes from developing our own natural resources,” he said. “We have already started removing barriers for communities like Sussex that want the opportunity for natural gas development.
“Natural gas development is being done safely in nearly every Canadian province including British Columbia. It’s time to stop making decisions for our province based on fear and start making decisions based on facts.”
The premier continues to support the Energy East oil pipeline, saying his government is working on a national coalition with other provinces to push for the project. He also noted that with Quebec seeking for transmission lines to sell hydroelectricity to New England, New Brunswick’s location could be leveraged to make Quebec change its mind of the pipeline.
The pipeline, the grid and fair treatment of New Brunswick workers’ qualifications would be a “package deal,” Higgs said.
“It’s not all about just the pipeline, but that’s part of it. There are other things that we look at, but I’m just saying, in a whole, there has to be a balance,” he said.
“We’ll happily open our markets to others, but we expect other provinces to follow suit.”
Higgs also wants to ask Ottawa to relinquish management of rivers and fisheries in New Brunswick to the province, with the help of elected First Nations governments.
“I believe with the council and traditional knowledge of First Nations, we can do a better job of management of declining salmon stock here than has ever been done from Ottawa,” he said.
Private Sector Happy About Proposed Initiatives
Krista Ross, CEO of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce, says she’s “very encouraged” with the direction Higgs’ government is taking.
“The business community has been calling for a balanced budget and this is something that will allow our province to go forward and hopefully in the not too distant future, not be as saddled by debt as we are at this time,” said Ross. “If we’re spending money on servicing debt, we’re not spending money on bringing growth to the province.
“I think the buzz in the room here [Thursday night] is indicative of the fact that the business community is supportive of the type of initiatives that the premier and this government are talking about, whether it be natural resource development, whether it be changes to taxation – just an environment where business can grow and prosper.”
Thomas Raffy, the CEO of the Conseil économique du Nouveau-Brunswick, said a balanced budget and less debt will create a climate of confidence for businesses to expand and invest in the province. And doing so without adding the tax burden on the private sector is even better, he said.
“The business community at large will be happy with this,” he said.
But Raffy said he’s still waiting to see how the budget is being balanced on March 19 and whether any programs and investments into the private sector will be cut.
Premier Higgs said in his speech that he’ll “cut anywhere that we’re not getting results.”