New Brunswick’s financial picture is not looking any brighter, and Finance Minister Blaine Higgs says the original four-year plan to balance the budget is now a seven-year plan.
Finance Ministry data released Feb. 4 as part of the Tory government’s 2014–2015 capital and operating budgets show a projected deficit of almost $400 million this year and a multi-year plan to return to balanced budgets by 2017– 2018.
The budget includes “strategic” investments in “priority areas such as health and senior care,” infrastructure and innovation, with $16 million in new spending for innovation, and $35 million dedicated to new capital projects. Provincial spending on deferred maintenance projects and other post-secondary initiatives is capped at 2013–2014 levels, and holds the line on the already announced two per cent increases to operating grant for universities, coupled with a three per cent tuition fee increase.
“We’re disappointed with the budget,” said Jean Sauvageau, president of the Federation of New Brunswick Faculty Associations. “The contribution of universities to the development of New Brunswick is not mentioned in the budget. In our opinion the absence of vision with respect to the post-secondary education sector is inconsistent with the government’s overall economic plans.”
The government is counting on increasing levels of economic activity to balance the books, but Sauvageau says “if we really intend to move forward to improve the province’s economy, we will need highly-trained personnel and this is what the universities of New Brunswick are able to provide.”
The province’s student leaders were also quick to criticize the budget.
“We felt there were a lot of possible improvements the government could address to help students struggling to pay for post-secondary education,” said Pat Joyce, executive director of the New Brunswick Student Alliance.
“The Department of Post-Secondary Education, Training and Labour was projecting an $8.2 million saving in the second-quarter budget report, a result of under-expenditures in student financial assistance due to lower interest rates as well as lower than expected uptake for employment programs. Those savings could have been used to make post-secondary education more affordable and accessible,” he said.
“Despite a difficult fiscal situation, government had a rare opportunity with this budget to translate savings into investment. Unfortunately, these savings were not passed along to students in need of financial support or debt relief.”