FREDERICTON — The final New Brunswick budget before this year’s provincial election includes a $41-million surplus but no big-ticket items to entice voters to the polls.

Tabled Tuesday by Finance Minister Ernie Steeves, the $13.3-billion budget increases spending by 6.4 per cent. Steeves downplayed the lack of voter-friendly measures, like tax cuts, telling reporters that his government doesn’t make budgets “based on the next election.”

“We make decisions based on what we financially can do, what’s best for New Brunswick, what’s best for the economy.”

The government touted the budget as containing the most spending on health care in provincial history, with $3.8 billion set aside for the health network in the 2024-25 fiscal year. That figure is up about six per cent from the $3.6 billion budgeted last spring for 2023-24, but it’s almost the same as what will have been spent when the fiscal year ends March 31.

Steeves, however, said there is $70 million in new money to help stabilize the regional health authorities, about $23 million for health-related technology initiatives and $20 million for primary health-care centres. The additional spending is possible because of savings from reducing their use of travel nurses to fill staffing gaps.

Liberal Leader Susan Holt said she thinks “New Brunswickers are going to feel sick” when they see the budget.

“I think that they’re shuffling around numbers from previous years. We don’t see any bold transformation of the health-care system that everyone has been calling for,” she said.

“Because when we look at the bottom line, there’s no net new money going in. They’re just shifting it around, and in ways that don’t meet the needs of New Brunswickers. These are small figures for the biggest problem our province is facing.

Steeves defended his government’s health-care spending, saying the budget is about “making hard choices and making good choices.”

He said government services are under pressure because of the fast rise in the province’s population. Over the last five years, he said, the population has increased by more than 64,000.

“An aging population and the arrival of so many new residents are driving demand to levels not seen before,” he said. “Clearly the status quo is not sustainable.”

Provincial gross domestic product is forecast to grow by 0.7 per cent in 2024. The net debt is projected to be $12.7 billion, representing 26.7 per cent of provincial gross domestic product.

The budget set aside $196 million for housing, compared with $127 million last year. The government chose not to include a cap on rents but budgeted $22 million to reduce the New Brunswick Housing wait-list for a “direct-to-rental benefit for families and seniors.”

The budget increases the Education Department budget to $1.9 billion from $1.7 billion, and includes $18.6 million to help schools with enrolment growth.

The government is also increasing its spending for the Department of Public Safety to $374 million from $366 million.

Richard Saillant, economist and former vice-president of the Université de Moncton, called the budget “forgettable.”

“It’s pretty much a steady as she goes budget,” he said. “There are not a lot of investments to move the needle on key priority issues such as housing … It doesn’t include anything that is dramatic or surprising.”

Jay Goldberg, interim Atlantic director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said there was not a lot in the budget for those experiencing an affordability crisis and who need help from the government right now.

Green Leader David Coon said the budget “fails on all counts.”

“I mean, on health care, they’re going to spend about as much as they did this year, which is horrendous given the crisis in health care,” he said.

“It’s lacking in the kind of ambition we need to address the real crisis that will make a difference in people’s lives. … It’s really quite shocking given the crisis we face.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 19, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press

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