FREDERICTON – Economists and the Conservative Opposition are renewing calls for the Liberal government to give New Brunswickers an early look at the province’s books.
The push for fiscal transparency comes following a report released in Nova Scotia earlier this week that found the province could be saddled with a $1.3-billion annual deficit by 2012-2013. The report was commissioned by the province’s new NDP government.
Observers say Nova Scotia’s troubled finances are further reason for the Graham government to provide an early fiscal update, even though it’s a political tradition to release a report that concludes the province’s books are in worse shape than the previous government let on.
“If they have nothing to hide, why don’t they release the results?” New Brunswick Conservative finance critic Bruce Fitch said Tuesday.
Fitch, the MLA for Riverview, wants the Liberals to provide the latest figures for both revenues and expenses, given the economic volatility of recent months.
“If we look to the future, and as we look at business expansion and opportunities, we need to know how the economy is going,” he said.
The Grits’ 2009 budget released in March projected a $741-million deficit, but the Tories estimate that shortfall has already reached $1 billion because of declining tax revenue. They also claim the province’s debt is growing by $1,843 per minute under the Liberals.
The Liberal government has so far denied requests by the Opposition for a look at the province’s books. Premier Shawn Graham contends the province has been more than open about the province’s fiscal footing. According to Graham, New Brunswick was one of the first province’s to acknowledge its slide into deficit.
As well, Graham has said his government led other provinces in trying to fight the economic downturn, mainly with an expanded capital budget aimed at creating jobs and pumping money into the economy. Graham has also noted that one of the major reasons for the projected deficit – extraordinary pension expenses – is diminishing because of a rebound in the stock market.
Charles Cirtwill, executive vice-president of the Halifax-based Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, said the government should be more open and transparent with its finances. Cirtwill estimated the 2009-2010 deficit is likely to be somewhere around $1 billion, though he cautioned estimates are never perfectly accurate.
“I would be surprised if they hit $1 billion,” he said. “Things would have to go really, really bad.”
As it stands, New Brunswickers likely won’t get a look at the books until the end of 2009, and again in March 2010, when the government introduces its next budget.
Auditor General Mike Ferguson said calling for an early fiscal update isn’t part of his office’s mandate.
“I think that’s really more a matter for the political debate between the opposition and the government,” he said.
“I would hope that as a matter of course, if the government felt things were significantly at risk, that they would come forward with their own fiscal update without anyone having to call for it.”