By Cheryl Norrad
FREDERICTON - Finance Minister Blaine Higgs held a pre-budget consultation meeting in Fredericton last night at the Forestry Complex to a standing-room-only crowd who presented their concerns, ranging from double tenant tax to small gas station owners being gouged by giant Costco and tuition costs for university students.
Higgs began proceedings shortly before 6:30 pm with a Powerpoint presentation, giving an overview of the province's financial situation, and how the plan will tighten things up. He stressed during his speech everyone will have to do their part in taking responsibility for pulling the province out of debt, and people will have to do more with less. After the 30 minute presentation, Higgs sat down and the floor was opened to the public.
Presenter Sherry Wilkins of District 18 addressed her concerns regarding school library funding, reduction of school districts and the job losses with it. However her biggest concern was the potential loss of retirement allowances for civil servants. In response, Higgs asked if there were any suggestions for saving money. Wilkins cheekily replied, "Not with the salary I'm making," to the laughter of the crowd.
Another presenter, Karen Ross of Kidney Cancer Canada, requested Higgs' department fund catastrophic drug costs, since New Brunswick and PEI are the only provinces in Canada without it. Higgs responded by saying, "We are committed to making that area a priority."
Speaker Andy Hardy raised the pulses of the crowd when he suggested at the mic that bonuses across the board received by some in the senior civil service and crown corporations be done away with completely. Hardy, a department of transportation employee, also said the government was overbuilding highways in the province with some projects unnecessary. "Someone in government has to have the guts to go into the highway contracts and cancel them because it's costing too much money," he said. He added, "The Lord government got us out of the highway tolls, there should be away out of some of these contracts."
New Brunswick NDP leader Dominic Cardy was also in attendance and worked his way through the line-up to the mic, saying he questioned the transparency of the process, adding focusing on the needs and wants of the province misguided; that a vision for the future of the province is needed. Cardy drew the biggest response from the crowd when he brought up government's addiction to corporate welfare, funding business to stay in the province over and over when it was something that doesn't work. Higgs prefaced his response to Cardy with a sly grin and said, "That was a great stump speech opportunity," before going on to answer the NDP leader. Higgs said the government is focused on creating accountability, and an open, transparent process by looking at all sectors. He added companies and banks are being asked to do their part.
A common refrain by Higgs after each member of the public spoke at the mic was, "...we have to balance our priorities and see what our needs are." No concrete promises were made, but Higgs took copious notes when members of the public spoke, taking down their suggestions and concerns. The meeting ran over it's scheduled adjournment at 9 pm, going until 10:30 pm which allowed everyone lined up at the mic to have their chance to speak.
At the end of the meeting, Higgs spoke with reporters. This publication posted video below of Higgs answering some of their questions.