Fredericton Daily Gleaner: Tories told where to spend, not cut

Tour | Finance minister in Fredericton to get input on upcoming budget

Published Friday February 4th, 2011

A1 By GREG WESTON
The Daily Gleaner

Click here to read original article in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner

Finance Minister Blaine Higgs' consultation tour returned to the capital Thursday, where he received plenty of input on where funding should go, but little advice on where the money would come from.

On the second-last stop on the 10-session tour, Higgs heard repeated calls for continued or increased government support from groups representing low-income earners, seniors, women, people with disabilities and students.

As the Progressive Conservatives prepare to release their first budget March 22, the government is looking for ways to reduce its spending.

But Dan Weston, co-ordinator of the Fredericton Anti-Poverty Organization, said that approach is fundamentally flawed.

"It's time we heard something different," he said, calling for a long-term vision of sustainability over short-term decision making.

"We should be here today talking about building a core economy for New Brunswickers, instead of talking about cutbacks driven by our slavery to an export-dependent economy."

Many attendees made suggestions they argued would save the government from spending money in areas such as health care and social services down the line.

Higgs, however, underlined the reality that spending must be made more efficient.

"A lot of people say they want more," Higgs said. "Well if you want more, where do you want less?"

Brian Duplessis, executive director of the United Way Central New Brunswick, asked what cutbacks would mean for the poverty-reduction plan, the result of 10 months of consultation between government, the private sector, non-profit groups and those affected by poverty.

"Quite frankly, I'm pleading with you - don't mess with it," he said in regard to the plan's goal of raising the minimum wage.

"When we're talking about those who are entering the workforce, those who are making minimum wage and are not working full-time, when we start to play around at that level, I think it demeans us all."

Tim Ross of the Community Action Group on Homelessness said the government should focus its spending on areas with positive long-term effects.

"Given the current fiscal and economic climate, we should invest in solutions that return savings," he said, echoing calls for the implementation of the anti-poverty plan.

He said poverty in the province is preventing $1.6 billion of annual economic activity, with 2,000 using homeless shelters each year and 30,000 people lacking adequate housing.

"If we want to move forward as a province and grow our labour force and grow opportunities, we should be investing in these people."

There were also calls for continued support of the province's women through continued steps toward pay equity in the public and private sectors, as well as subsidies for universal childcare and legal aid.

"New Brunswick falls below the national average when it comes to public spending on childcare," said Karla Dawn Reynolds of the New Brunswick Advisory Council on the Status of Women.

Higgs said the tour's goal is to gauge people's priorities and listen to new ideas on how to spend money more strategically.

"Looking at how we balance, certainly our poverty-reduction program, and maintaining those programs that are so significant for us, that's going to be the goal that we want to achieve and the challenge for us," he said, adding that he has received many demands to increase spending around the province.

"I understand that, but it is about priorities. At some point, we've got to decide what our real priorities are and move forward.

"This is not an easy process."

Barb MacKinnon, president of the New Brunswick Lung Association, agreed that a balance must be found.

"I don't want us to think that we're in a competition between economy and the environment, because we have to have a healthy environment in order for our economy to work well," she said.

"All of these things are so intersected: health, the economy, the environment, social justice and poverty issues."

Luc Erjavec, Atlantic vice-president of the Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said the industry should play an important role in the economic recovery.

"We're unique as an industry because we're employing people in every single community in this province. We're not one factory in a single town," he said.

"We have a restaurant, a bar or a pub in every community creating jobs, paying taxes and buying local services."

He said restaurants and bars add to a sense of community and promote wellness through sponsorship of local sports teams.

The final consultation sessions will take place at 7 p.m. at the Royal Canadian Legion in Woodstock on Wednesday.

Click here to read original article in the Fredericton Daily Gleaner