New Brunswick government won't be able to balance books before next election

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SAINT JOHN, N.B. - New Brunswick's finance minister says he won't hit a campaign target to balance the provincial budget by 2014 and he isn't able to say when the government will achieve its goal.

Blaine Higgs is travelling the province gathering input in advance of the next budget, which is expected March 26.

"That's when we'll be in a position to reforecast our timeline to balance," he said Friday.

Higgs said while the Progressive Conservative government is making progress in efforts to cut spending, the province has taken significant hits on the revenue side.

Economic growth had been projected at 1.3 per cent, but instead it has been about 0.7 per cent and could continue to decline, he said.

Higgs said the province's economy has not rebounded since the 2008 recession.

In November, he said the deficit projection for this current year was expected to be $356 million — an increase of $173 million from the last budget.

On Friday, Higgs said that's expected to get worse.

"I'm hoping it won't be significantly worse, but I think it will be slightly higher," he added.

The province's net debt is now more than $10 billion.

Higgs said as he prepares his budget, all possibilities are on the table including suggestions of highway tolls and increasing the harmonized sales tax.

"We said that any change in the HST would require a referendum and that would certainly be the case if that is a decision," Higgs said.

He said there is also a need to take a closer look at how money is being spent.

"We have over 50 schools that have less than 100 students. That's significant, but are we ready to start making moves in that direction to deal with that?"

Opposition Leader Victor Boudreau of the Liberals said while the economy is faltering, the provincial government has made the situation worse by not growing the economy and creating jobs.

"There has been very, very little done on the economic development front and that's why we're losing thousands of jobs, we're losing thousands of people to other jurisdictions, so that pie that everybody is fighting to get a slice of keeps getting smaller and smaller and smaller," said Boudreau.

Boudreau said the government should have been looking for ways of growing revenues rather than buying the Saint John Harbour Bridge and giving property tax cuts to large corporations.

But Higgs defended the government plan, saying the spending advocated by the Liberals doesn't help in the long run.

"I have great difficulty in the suggestion that the province spending money to build infrastructure or creating jobs for the sake of creating jobs is adding economic value," he said.

"It's like short-term gain for very long-term pain."