FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's Progressive Conservative government will bring down its final budget Tuesday before an election, a fiscal plan expected to be dripping in red ink despite its promise to balance the books by this year.
Premier David Alward downplayed expectations in an interview Monday, saying the budget for 2014-15 will build upon his government's past successes, such as its catastrophic drug plan announced in December.
"This budget really builds on the significant work that's gone on thus far, the significant choices that have been taken, the work that's gone on to get our fiscal house in order," Alward said.
But that fiscal house has seen better days. Alward's government has run deficits each year, with Finance Minister Blaine Higgs projecting in December a shortfall of $538.2 million for this fiscal year, up from the previous forecast of $499.9 million.
The gloomier outlook is the result of a decline in revenue that has outpaced the government's cuts in spending. Higgs has said he is looking for further reductions in expenditures, but has also tried to lower the public's expectations, saying not to expect any pre-election goodies.
The budget coincides with opening of the spring legislative session and comes as Alward is striving to convince the electorate that better times are on the horizon with the possibility of the Energy East Pipeline project and a burgeoning shale gas sector. That was the main thrust of his annual state-of-the-province address last week.
But that message of optimism has not quelled calls to further rein in spending and create a more friendly investment climate.
"Pushing a balanced budget even further down the road only compounds the pain for later and does not provide business owners with the stability they need to confidently invest in our province today," said Richard Dunn, director of provincial affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
Tom Bateman, a political scientist at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, said he believes the government has concluded that it is on the right side of the shale gas debate and is willing to promote the industry in the months leading up to the election as a viable way of turning around the economy.
"People want responsible development, but they want development," he said. "So the government is probably reading the public temper carefully on this one and has decided 'Yup, this is all good.'"
Liberal Opposition Leader Brian Gallant took issue with the timing of the budget. With a few exceptions, the capital budget is delivered in December with an operating budget handed down in March, just ahead of the start of the fiscal year in April and following the release of the federal budget.
Finance Minister Blaine Higgs will table both the capital and operating budgets Tuesday, prior to the federal budget set for next Tuesday.
"The reason that they are going early is because they want to get out of the legislative assembly as soon as possible to hit the streets and campaign for the election," Gallant said.
"It's unfortunate because when you're focused and strategizing on how to win the election, you are not properly governing, not growing the economy and not creating jobs."
Alward brushed aside the accusation, saying an early budget helps departments with their planning.
The election is set for Sept. 22.
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version incorrectly stated there were a series of escalating deficits.