A substantial amount of public support for fiscal consolidation is predicated on the assumption that profligate government spending has been responsible for fiscal deficits and debt. But New Brunswick is a clear example of how revenue shortfalls, as the result of lowered taxes, have conspired with too-low spending to create a fiscal imbalance. Policies aimed at reducing government deficits and debt accumulation have increased unemployment at the same time that they have been fiscally counterproductive.
Published in the Telegraph-Journal 26th April 2013
Today’s economy wasn’t part of David Alward’s plan. Before taking office in 2010, his campaign pledge was that he would “lower small business taxes, freeze power rates, increase the budgets for tree-planting and woodworkers, and put more decision-making power into the hands of local economic development agencies” to restore the province’s economic health.
Three years later, the health of the economy has scarcely improved. The most stark evidence of this failure is on the fiscal side. Standard & Poor’s Rating Services downgraded New Brunswick’s credit from its A-plus grade to AA-minus over fears of its high tax-supported debt and the long-term demographic trends facing the province. In 2009-2010, New Brunswick had the second largest deficit in Canada as a proportion of GDP and it has been growing steadily. The interest on the net debt reached $643 million in 2010-2011, even with record-low interest rates. The rating agency says the Alward government is on the right track to turn the situation around. But it is clear that fiscal consolidation has become mired in the reality of near-zero GDP growth.
New Brunswickers are acutely aware that things aren’t working as planned. Since 2010, unemployment has risen to over 10 per cent, real wages have fallen and despite record-low interest rates, businesses are not investing. The federal government has made changes to Employment Insurance prompting Premier Alward to call for a moratorium on the new provisions until more study is done on their impact. The response of a record number of New Brunswickers to the moribund economy has been to join those who already have sought more favourable employment conditions in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Ontario.
New Brunswick joins those jurisdictions in which the practices of fiscal consolidation have only worsened an already bad set of economic conditions. Even austerity hawks have begun to reconsider whether the cure is more onerous than the disease. The International Monetary Fund said this month that “it may be time to consider adjustments to the original fiscal plans.” The IMF may have been referring to Great Britain, but the observation is equally relevant to New Brunswick.
The question is what kind of adjustments would work in New Brunswick at this stage. Mr. Alward and Minister of Finance Blaine Higgs blame the fiscal situation on years of profligate government spending. Mr. Higgs has on numerous occasions said that the government plans to stick to the economic course it has set which focuses on reducing government expenditures to kick-start growth.
A growing chorus of economists and policy makers argue that there are some things the government could do to spur growth without risking a large increase in the budget deficit. The simplest would be an injection of investment in infrastructure such as roads, bridges and schools. The logic is that such projects create jobs and generate business investment. They could get off the ground almost immediately, yet would not add significantly to the deficit because they are financed by long-term borrowing. There are a significant number of infrastructure projects across the province that would meet an urgent need, from the building of water treatment facilities to hospital improvement to school repair. Each of these projects eventually will need to be undertaken anyway but with record-low interest rates, these projects today represent a real bargain.
The challenge even to this relatively modest undertaking is that infrastructure development requires government funding. Government however, has borrowed beyond its ability to pay, at least according to the bond ratings agencies that are watching this province closely. This offers the politically partisan opportunity to criticize Mr. Alward and his party but New Brunswick has supported heavy government spending for far longer than Mr. Alward has been premier. New Brunswickers today enjoy the legacy of substantial government spending in health care, education, roads and pensions. But this has occurred at the same time that taxes were reduced to levels that ultimately have proven to be unable to sustain this spending.
Mr. Higgs is right that unbridled spending has been the primary cause for the province’s financial mess. But increasingly, being right may not be enough.