Paul Davis, who must call an election within a year of the date he was sworn in Sept. 26, sounded like he was already on the hustings as he spoke to the St. John's Board of Trade.
His overtly political tone raised fresh questions about when he'll go to the voters.
Davis had indicated he'd bring down a budget before hitting the campaign trail but now says that isn't certain.
"Between now and next spring we'll let our plans be known," he said after his speech. "We're planning as we're moving along."
Davis said a projected election-year budget surplus for 2015-16 will be wiped out unless oil prices rebound, and fast.
Last spring's budget forecast a third straight deficit of $538 million for 2014-15 and a return to the black the following year. The province relies on the offshore oil sector for one-third of its revenues. It anchored its spending plan using a projected average Brent crude price of US$105 a barrel.
Oversupply and a shaky global economic outlook have helped drive that price down to about US$80 since July. It costs the provincial treasury around $30 million for each dollar the actual average price falls below forecasts made with help from industry consultants.
Davis concedes his government has overspent at a time of unprecedented wealth for Newfoundland and Labrador. But he said successive surpluses over the last decade were used to meet pent-up demands for better roads, schools and hospitals while deficits were run up when needed to keep the economy humming.
"It's important for people to remember where we were a decade ago and how far we've come," he said.
Auditor general Terry Paddon warned last week about where the province is going if it doesn't bring expenses closer to revenues.
Lower oil prices could significantly raise the deficit this year, he said in a report to the house of assembly on provincial public accounts.
Paddon said expenses are up 58 per cent over the last decade and net debt reached $9.1 billion in 2013-14. That's down from a high of almost $12 billion in 2004 but is creeping back up, he noted.
The province has reached a deal in principle with unions to grapple with unfunded public pension liabilities blamed for about 75 per cent of net debt. Potential effects of that agreement, however, have not yet been calculated and publicly released.
Sharon Horan, chairwoman of the St. John's Board of Trade, drew laughs as she mentioned after the premier's speech that it remains a non-partisan group.
"That doesn't mean we don't care about politics," she said. Horan praised government efforts to increase immigration, diversify the economy and encourage business growth.
But in a later interview she stressed the need to adjust spending to reflect revenues.
"There are going to be times, I'm sure, that budgets are not balanced. But that can't go on and on and on."
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