DIEPPE – Premier Blaine Higgs told a room of Greater Moncton businesspeople Wednesday that he wants to create a vibrant business environment by cutting the overall tax burden.
The tax burden is “simply too high” and “suffocating our economy,” he said.
Higgs was speaking as part of the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Moncton’s Distinguished Speakers Series. He said he will get the public finances in order and won’t increase the province’s net debt. By reducing debt and the overall tax load, he hopes to revive investment in the private sector.
Higgs also wants businesses and municipalities to tell him what issues they’re facing that the government can help with.
“I want you to tell me what specific legislation is causing you grief in your business,” he said. “We’ll meet with the right people to make the right changes.”
But not everything can be changed. Some things are “non-starters,” he said. But paperwork is one of the things that can be streamlined, for example.
Higgs also plans to continue fighting against the carbon tax.
“I believe this carbon tax unfairly targets New Brunswick businesses and it’s too heavy a financial burden. And we’re going to meet our emissions standards, that is not a topic of debate.”
John Wishart, the Chamber’s CEO, said issues business face include red tape, the time it takes to do paperwork and taxes – including the carbon tax and another proposed tax on machinery and equipment in a bill put forth by Liberal MLA Gerry Lowe.
Workforce recruitment and retention is also a challenge, so any help the province can provide through its immigration streams would be appreciated, Wishart said.
The ratio of public-to-private-sector is a concern as New Brunswick, like other parts of Canada, face a demographic shift that would see a smaller tax base to pay for services. Currently, Higgs said, the public sector in New Brunswick is too big compared to its private sector.
“I’m an engineer, not an economist,” he said. “But even an engineer like me understands that the public sector cannot be bigger than the private sector. Someone has to create real revenue to pay the bills.”
At the same time, the province also has a shrinking labour force. In the next 10 years, around 120,000 jobs will open up due to retirements and other factors.
“Finding employees is going to be a major hurdle for us going forward but we can’t pretend it doesn’t exist, we have to get on a path and we have to stay on the path regardless of who is in government.”
Overall, more business investment is needed, Higgs said. Industries like shale gas development and tourism could encourage that, he said. He wants to collaborate with other Atlantic provinces on these sectors. The shale gas development would get “something moving” in the province, but also cause private sector investment to follow, Higgs said.
He said local natural gas production would also serve as a transition to cleaner sources of energy.
“We have been a country of natural resources. We have to transition off that over time, not abruptly and be caught in the crosshairs and paying well beyond what we can afford,” he said.
The chamber says that as long as shale gas development is done in a safe and responsible way, it should at least be explored.
Wishart said themes Higgs highlighted in his speech align with what most business people would support.
“Overall, I find it a change of tone from the previous government. Not that the previous government didn’t listen to us,” he said.
Wishart noted that Higgs’ administration has swiftly lowered the WorkSafe NB rates, the rise of which hit employers. The Chamber will push for further reductions because the current rate was still a 56 per cent average increase.
While it’s too early to say if Higgs’ government is doing enough for the business community, Wishart said a key indicator will be the next budget.