By Quentin Casey
As appeared on page A1


The first Liberal budget since the dawn of the Bernard Lord era will be a balanced one, Finance Minister Victor Boudreau said Monday.

The Liberals, elected in September, will present their initial financial blueprint today, marking their first real chance to reshape the province’s fiscal order.

During a luncheon meeting with business leaders and government officials in Boston, Premier Shawn Graham said the budget would see increased investments in education, the economy and energy.

However, in a scrum with reporters Monday, Boudreau was less forthcoming with details. Instead, he repeated previous warnings of tough decisions and problems left over from the Lord government.

“We will be presenting a balanced budget despite the challenges that were left to us by the previous government,” he said. “That’s very important for us, as it is for all New Brunswickers. Nobody wants to see government go into deficits again.”

In recent months, while citing a Grant Thornton audit of the province’s books, Boudreau claimed a potential $400-million deficit could mean possible tax increases, programs changes and a cut to the civil service.

He did not back away from his prediction that difficult choices had to be made.

“We were faced with some pretty tough realities: a projected deficit of between $300-400 million if everything remained status quo,” he said. “We have looked at that and taken charge of the situation.

“There is no question that tough decisions had to be made, but we were elected to govern – governing means making tough decisions and taking control.”

Ian Munro, director of research for the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, a think tank based in Halifax, hopes the Liberals will maintain recent tradition in their first budget.

“What I hope we’ll see is a continuation of some of the good things we saw last year with a surplus in the budget, debt going down and taxes going down,” he said.

Munro said tax relief should be issued across the board, not just in specific industries. Business tax reductions will help promote investment, while personal income tax cuts will help attract and retain workers because it will boost their “real income,” he said.

And if the books are as bad as the Liberals claim?

“If the books they have inherited are pointing them toward a deficit situation, I hope they will take bold action and restrain government spending,” Munro said.

Conservative MLA Keith Ashfield said his party worries what affect Liberal spending will have on the budget numbers.

“We’re waiting with baited breath to see what the government is proposing,” he said. “We’re concerned they may have gone on a bit of a spending spree here.”

Ashfield dismissed Boudreau’s contention the Tories were not up front about the state of the books.

“That’s totally untrue. We made it very public prior to the election,” said the former Natural Resources minister.

“When I was in cabinet we faced the same types of challenges. It’s all about making choices. You make the (right) choices and you can certainly balance your budgets.”

Boudreau is bucking the tradition of wearing a new pair of shoes on budget day. Saying his shoes are comfortable and nicely wore in, Boudreau opted for a new shirt and tie.

He also said the task of balancing a $6.3-billion provincial budget is more involved than the $2-million budget he worked on as a municipal administrator in the village of Cap-Pelé.

“It’s a different kettle of fish, but it’s essentially the same thing,” he said. “You have to determine what your priorities are.”

– with files from David Shipley in Boston