POLITICS

5 issues to watch for in New Brunswick's throne speech

11/27/2012 08:03 EST | Updated 01/27/2013 05:12 EST
Premier David Alward will unveil his government’s set of priorities for the upcoming session on Tuesday afternoon in his third throne speech at a time when the province’s fiscal problems continue to plague the government.

Throne speeches are often long on rhetoric and vision, but short on specific details. The speech, which will be read by Lt. Gov. Graydon Nicholas, will offer a broad overview of the provincial government’s agenda for the next session.

It will be up to the provincial government to fill in those details during its capital budget in December, the full budget in March and its various pieces of legislation that will be introduced before the legislature adjourns for the summer.

Here are five issues to watch for in Tuesday’s throne speech.

Budget targets

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs announced last month the provincial government’s projected deficit had nearly doubled to $356-million.

Higgs was also forecasting dire economic news a year ago and the provincial government was able to clamp down on spending and ended up with a smaller than expected deficit. Last November, Higgs warned the deficit could hit $545.7 million, but it ended up at $260.6 million when the books were finally closed on the fiscal year.

It is unclear how the finance minister will restrain spending in the final six months of the current fiscal year.

Last year, the finance minister had to control departments that were overspending their budgets. This isn’t the case in 2012.

One of the factors behind the worsening fiscal climate is the lower-than-projected revenues, particularly from income tax, corporate income tax and the Harmonized Sales Tax.

The finance minister also pointed to the province’s slowing growth projections.

The Alward government may need to recalibrate its spending plans in the upcoming session if it wants to find a path out of the fiscal mess.

It could also force the Progressive Conservatives to reconsider a pledge made during the 2010 election campaign that they would balance the provincial deficit before the end of their mandate.

Higgs reiterated that promise in March and said the provincial government would return to a surplus situation in 2014-15.

Higgs likely has no shortage of arm-chair finance ministers willing to posit their views on how to climb out of the fiscal hole.

For example, Donald Savoie, a public administration expert at the University of Moncton, has consistently warned the provincial government that it needs to raise taxes and cut costs.

Economic development

The province’s sputtering economy may also become a focus of the upcoming session.

Statistics Canada reported that New Brunswick’s unemployment rate hit 11.6 per cent in October, which is the highest level since May 2003.

When asked about job opportunities in the future, Alward and Higgs have often raised the possibility of developing the shale gas industry. But it is unlikely the industry would be able to provide a large number of jobs in the short-term.

There have also been high-profile examples of companies cutting jobs or shutting offices in recent months tgat have added to the employment headaches for the government. In particular, Radian6 in Fredericton announced it is curtailing its workforce and Virtual-Agent Services announced it was closing its Bathurst call centre.

Both Radian6 and VAS had been promised payroll rebates from the provincial government to add jobs months before the job losses were announced.

The Alward government has routinely faced questions by opposition politicians over its Invest NB initiative, which was designed to create jobs.

The Opposition Liberals have already indicated economic development will be a top priority in the upcoming session.

Alward hosted a meeting last week that focused on expanding six specific sectors: information and communications technology, biosciences, industrial fabrication, aerospace and defence, value-added wood and value-added food.

Three government departments are co-ordinating plans to add jobs in these sectors and they are being asked to recommend annual plans to develop these sectors.

Shale gas reports

The Alward government still has to confirm how it will deal with recommendations included in two reports on the shale gas industry.

Energy and Mines Minister Craig Leonard will be the lead cabinet minister for the shale gas industry in this session. He will be responsibile for explaining how the provincial government will respond to the report by Louis LaPierre, a University of Moncton biologist, and an alternate report written by Dr. Eilish Cleary, the province’s chief medical officer of health.

The Alward government hired LaPierre to solicit feedback on its proposed regulatory changes that govern the oil and gas sector. His report called for the industry to be pushed forward in an incremental fashion.

By contrast, the province’s top health officer offered a different view. Cleary’s report, which started more than a year ago, indicated the provincial government should not move forward with the industry until several recommendations were implemented.

The shale gas issue has prompted many protests around the province and has proved to be a difficult issue for the Alward government.

A former Tory cabinet minister showed up to one of LaPierre’s public meetings and hammered the Alward government for its handling of the shale gas file, calling it a "dangerous experiment."

The provincial government’s approach has also caused one resource company to halt its exploration plans in 2012. SWN Resources Canada was unable to carry out any of its planned testing because it was unable to get the proper permits.

The delay could push back the company’s decision on whether there is a viable shale gas industry in New Brunswick.

Health funding

Health Minister Ted Flemming will be taking his seat in the legislature for the first time on Tuesday after winning the Rothesay byelection in June.

The rookie cabinet minister also has the difficult task of leading the province’s largest department during a period of fiscal austerity. Flemming spoke of health-care “sustainability” on the day that he was sworn into cabinet.

So far, the health department is on track to meet its budget, according to the Department of Finance’s second quarter fiscal update.

But the health minister and his department also have to triage many expensive decisions.

For instance, the department has already announced that it will not spend any more money to repair or renovate the Perth-Andover hospital following last March’s massive flood.

But the Alward government has promised that it will roll out a plan to upgrade the quality of health services offered in facilities operated by the Vitalité Health Authority.

Flemming’s predecessor, Madeleine Dubé, had confirmed the provincial government will roll out a "catch-up" plan for health services in the Vitalité network.

Catastrophic drug plan

There is also a big ticket health promise left unfulfilled. The Progressive Conservatives committed to a $20-million catastrophic drug plan in the 2010 election campaign, but after two years in office, the plan still has not come to fruition.

New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island are the only provinces without such a program in place that covers drug costs that are deemed catastrophic.

Alward promised in August that he would introduce a catastrophic drug plan, but he would not commit to a time frame.

Dr. Dennis Furlong, a former provincial health minister, has been asked to propose how a catastrophic drug program would work.

He has said when his plan is ready it will be brought forward to the provincial government for review.

Liberal Leader Brian Gallant said in a statement on Monday that his party would support the Alward government in creating a catastrophic drug program.