By Shawn Berry
As appeared on page A1


Fredericton Mayor Brad Woodside says he’s waiting with bated breath as New Brunswick’s Liberal government prepares to hand down its first provincial budget this afternoon. He’s worried civil-service jobs in the capital may be on the chopping block. The concern comes from reports government departments were asked to do everything – including slash their own ranks – to stave off a projected $400-million deficit.

“The one thing I’m not looking forward to in the budget is the civil-service jobs here,” Woodside said Monday.

“I’ve heard the rumours … I’m certainly hoping the job market here isn’t impacted negatively by this government.”

The comments came just hours after freshman Finance Minister Victor Boudreau pledged he would present a balanced budget later today. Speaking Monday, Boudreau promised his budget – which will be more than $6 billion – will be a balanced one. But he wouldn’t tell reporters how he got there.

“There were tough decisions that had to be made,” Boudreau said. “We were elected to govern, and governing means making tough decisions sometimes, taking control and taking charge of the situation.”

He wouldn’t go into details about how his budget team got there, but said there wasn’t much “wiggle room.”

He said everything was on the table in January – including cuts to the civil service – in his bid to avoid a $400-million deficit projected by the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

“I think New Brunswickers will be pleased. We are pleased with the budget we are tabling.”

Today’s budget will set the groundwork for more “transformational changes,” Boudreau said.

Asked if he trumpeted the projected deficit to make today’s budget an easier pill to swallow, Boudreau said the accounting firm confirmed internal government numbers.

In an editorial board meeting with The Daily Gleaner last week, interim PC leader Jeannot Volpe, the province’s former finance minister, said he won’t stand in the way of making the civil service more efficient.

“I will not oppose it if they can find some efficiencies,” he said.

But he also noted that workforce reductions carried out during the previous government’s two terms came in the form of voluntary packages, including one to cut 1,700 jobs. Volpe also said two senior civil servants completed a “common-services review” that found potential areas where the province could become more efficient. Woodside said that if jobs are lost, he’ll have plenty to say about it.

“I’ve made it quite clear my feeling on it and the government is the government because of the commitment from the civil servants here in Fredericton,” he said.

The Liberals won the last election with 29 seats, capturing three more than the Conservatives. The Liberals captured all four seats in the city.

It’s equally disconcerting, he said, that the budget is coming up right after the co-chairs of the province’s new self-sufficiency task force suggested civil service jobs be shuffled out of Fredericton into other regions. It’s a concept that the mayor took dead aim at during Monday night’s city council meeting.

Woodside will also be looking for good news in the budget, such as the long sought-after ramp on the northeast side of the Westmorland Street Bridge, funding for the community college and other infrastructure projects.

Boudreau has raised the spectre of possible tax hikes in addition to spending cuts, but critics have slammed the idea of hitting New Brunswickers with higher taxes.

The province, like its neighbours in Atlantic Canada, is hemorrhaging young workers to such high pay, low-tax jurisdictions as Alberta.

“Raising taxes wouldn’t be helpful,” said Ian Munro of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an economic think-tank based in Halifax.

Munro said New Brunswick should move ahead with spending cuts and broad-based tax reductions for business and individuals.

“Targeting specific industries for tax cuts would be the wrong way to go,” he said.

“There should be personal tax cuts. That would help to increase take-home pay in New Brunswick and help keep workers in the province.”

A recent study by the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies reported that Alberta alone attracted nearly 13,000 Atlantic Canadians in the year ending July 1, 2006.

Premier Shawn Graham has promised to reverse the population exodus. He has set a target of attracting 5,000 immigrants a year by 2015.

With files from Canadian Press