04/01/2015 12:51 EDT | Updated 06/01/2015 05:59 EDT

New Brunswick budget unfairly targets seniors and students, critics say

FREDERICTON - New Brunswick's finance minister is fending off accusations that his first budget unfairly targets seniors and students, saying the $8.6-billion fiscal plan asks all taxpayers to share the burden of balancing finances that are deeply in the red.

Roger Melanson's budget, tabled Tuesday with a projected $476.8-million deficit, increases premiums for seniors who use the Medavie Blue Cross drug program and removes a $113 cap on the daily amount seniors pay for nursing home care.

Budget documents say the savings and investments of seniors receiving nursing-home care will no longer be exempt from an assessment that determines their ability to pay.

"We're not attacking seniors," Melanson said Wednesday outside the legislature after he responded to a string of questions from the opposition that focused on seniors and students.

"We're asking the ones who can afford a little bit more to help us out a little bit more."

Cecile Cassista, head of the Coalition for Seniors and Nursing Home Residents Rights, says her group has been flooded with calls and emails from angry seniors who are getting behind a campaign to have the changes reversed.

"People are saying we have to keep the pressure on," she said in an interview.

During question period, interim Progressive Conservative Leader Bruce Fitch said the changes amounted to "a considerable attack on seniors."

Premier Brian Gallant responded by saying the main principle guiding the budget was fairness.

"When it comes to seniors, we're going to be asking those who are a bit better off, those who can afford it, to all chip in a little bit more," Gallant told the legislature. "Those who are struggling will not be touched."

The six-month-old Liberal government is also eliminating a tuition rebate for graduates in the New Brunswick workforce. The program was aimed at rewarding students who graduate from a New Brunswick institution and chose to remain in the province.

Melanson said the program did nothing to make post-secondary education more accessible or affordable, which he said is what students have been calling for. As well, he said the government is helping students by freezing tuition this fiscal year.

Trevor Holder, the Progressive Conservative critic for post-secondary education, said the public reaction was unlike anything he has seen in his 16 years in the legislature.

"I don't remember a response to a budget being this negative," he said. "It's pretty clear that, on one hand, the government is attacking seniors who have saved all their lives and then on the other hand, they're going after young professionals who are now taking the opportunity to save money."

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