New Brunswick's year-old Liberal government opened a new session of the legislature Tuesday with an unusually gloomy speech from the throne that hints at a get-tough plan to repair the province's tattered finances.
The document, read in the legislature by Lt.-Gov. Jocelyne Roy-Vienneau, starkly details how the province has accumulated a hefty $12.4-billion debt by failing to produce a balanced budget since 2007.
As a result, the cost of servicing that debt is now greater than the individual budgets of all but four government departments. To emphasize that point, the speech says the province now spends more on interest payments than it does on post-secondary education.
"By repairing our finances and investing in priorities, we will position New Brunswick for a bright future," the speech says. "There are tough choices to be made. But those choices will lead to better days ahead."
Premier Brian Gallant says in the speech that the province's cost-cutting Strategic Program Review has concluded its consultation phase, saying the time has come take action.
"Instead of tinkering around the edges, significant choices need to be made in the upcoming budget," the speech says. "(The) government needs to bring deficit budgeting to an end. All the decisions that will get our province there will be presented to New Brunswickers in this session."
The speech says unless the province alters its path, its credit rating could be downgraded, debt-servicing costs could rise and this would hinder the government's ability to invest in education and health care.
The premier said in the speech the program review has already resulted in $115 million in savings, some of which came from reducing the size of the cabinet, shrinking salaries for ministers and members of the legislature and reducing the number of senior civil servants.
The goal of the review, which started in January, is to find up to $600 million in savings or new revenue.
Currently, the projected deficit for the 2015-16 budget is $453 million.
Gallant said his government recognizes that simply cutting costs could hurt the province, which has seen its economy shrink since 2010.
That's why the government's top priority remains job creation, the premier said. The throne speech includes a long list of government measures aimed at stimulating the economy.
The premier said the province is already seeing results on the job front with Statistics Canada reporting a lower unemployment rate and an increase of 3,500 jobs from October 2014 to October 2015.
Last Friday, the government released a list of cost-saving and revenue generating ideas produced by the review. Among them were increasing in the harmonized sales tax, introducing highway tolls and cutting the number of teachers.
The report said a two percentage point increase for the HST to 15 per cent would increase annual revenue by almost $300 million and suggested new tax credits to mitigate the impact of an HST increase on low- and middle- income earners.
Other options included closing rural hospitals or converting them into community health centres, increasing the tobacco tax, outsourcing highway maintenance and selling NB Liquor.