The numbers may seem daunting, but people who follow government spending say there’s nothing out of line with the way New Brunswick balanced its books and offered up a $19-million surplus while it expects its debt to grow to more than $7 billion.

The province will spend about $600 million this year just on interest payments to make sure the debt doesn’t go up.

“That’s just paying the interest,” said David Murrell, a professor of economics at the University of New Brunswick.

He’s looked at the debts of other provinces and found New Brunswick compares favourably.

The province has balanced the books on ordinary spending, but is increasing the debts on capital spending, he said.

The answer to that has proven to be an unpopular one in the past, impose user fees – things such as tolls on highways – for example.

Murrell is among those who think paying down the debt isn’t a priority right now.

Paying down the debt, he said, isn’t a priority unless spending on programs is about to go up, he said.

Finance Minister Victor Boudreau said the government is doing a good job of handling its debt and improving the province.

“I think we’re managing our debt very well but at the same time, as we make some of these strategic investments, obviously it’s going to the net debt. But it’s also adding to the net worth of the province in terms of having new highways and schools and bridges,” he said.

The net debt will increase by $118 million this year.

By law, the government is required to reduce its debt every four years, he said.

Boudreau compared it to running a household.

“At the end of the year you may even have money left over for a small vacation or to put money aside. But if you bought a house this year, your net debt has increased.”

New Brunswick’s forecast debt of $7.1 billion will be about $9,500 for every man, woman and child in the province. When debt is calculated per capita, New Brunswick is third behind Alberta, which has no debt, and British Columbia.

John Williamson of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation said New Brunswick’s situation should be taken in context though.

“The big difference between Ontario, B.C. and New Brunswick is that the first two have growing populations, but New Brunswick appears to have a declining population,” Williamson said.

“New Brunswick has a worrisome problem of the debt growing – albeit by a small amount – but the economic outloook isn’t as positive.”

The province should be careful not to squander its position by piling on more debt, Williamson said.

Opposition leader Jeannot Volpe agrees. He’s criticized the provincial government for increasing spending in a budget that could have provided a surplus to be used to provide tax breaks, or even pay down the debt.

Doing the latter would have fit in nicely with the government’s stated commitment to make the province self-sufficient and reduce interest payments, he said.

“Last year and this year they got surpluses. They could have put them aside to pay down the debt,” Volpe said. “The first step to be self-sufficient, reduce your debt, there’ll be less money on interest for the debt.”

Ian Munro of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies said that’s the logical way to go, especially while times are good and the province saw a surplus.

“If anything, that’s the time to be paying down your debt,” he said. “Think of it from a household perspective, if you have a lot of credit-card debt and your boss gives you a bonus, that’s the time to pay down your credit card, not when you’re getting laid off.”