05/07/2014 10:37 EDT | Updated 07/07/2014 05:59 EDT

New Brunswick would be required to reduce deficit, stay in black under bill

FREDERICTON - The government of New Brunswick introduced legislation Wednesday that aims to improve its fiscal position by requiring deficit reductions and would allow new taxes without having to go to a referendum if the province is expected to be more than $400 million in the red.

But the Opposition said the measures contained in the bill come too late with an election months away.

The Fiscal Transparency and Accountability Act would require governments to cut their deficits by $125 million annually, and they would have to remain in the black once they record a surplus.

In February, the Progressive Conservative government delivered a budget that projected a $391.1-million shortfall for the 2014-15 fiscal year.

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs said the bill would fine cabinet ministers $2,500 each if the government fails to reduce the deficit or maintain a surplus.

"Collectively we have a common goal to improve the fiscal state of this province, and if we're going to do that and we mean it, we have to show visibly that we're serious about it," Higgs said.

"Nothing is clearer than when it affects you personally."

The legislation makes exceptions for extraordinary events such as natural disasters, wars and economic crashes such as the global economic downturn in 2008. Higgs said in cases such as those, the government would be exempt from having to comply with the act if such events cost at least $20 million.

The government would also be allowed to impose new taxes without holding a referendum if a projected deficit is greater than $400 million.

Under the Taxpayer Protection Act, the government is required to have a referendum before introducing new taxes, tolls or increasing the harmonized sales tax unless such measures were contained in an election platform.

Liberal finance critic Roger Melanson said the Tory government is late bringing in such legislation, 3 1/2 years into its mandate and four months from an election set for Sept. 22.

"They promised to balance the books without raising taxes or reducing services," he said. "They've done the exact opposite."

Despite the criticism, the Liberals say they support the bill.

Political parties would also have to provide cost estimates of their election promises under the legislation. But they would also have the option of publicly disclosing that no estimate is prepared.

Higgs said if parties chose to provide cost estimates, they would be required to have them verified by a chartered accountant and present that to the public no later than 10 days before voting day.

Parties that fail to comply with the act could lose their annual operating allowance they get from the province. It would be up to other parties to file a complaint following the election and the complaint would be heard by a judge.