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Balanced budgets, carbon taxes and confidence votes: N.B.’s top political stories of 2019

Year in review: New Brunswick’s top political stories in 2019
WATCH: Global News’ Silas Brown rounds up the most newsworthy political stories in New Brunswick for 2019.

New Brunswick’s first calendar year with a minority government in almost a century was an interesting one.

Premier Blaine Higgs has been supported on key votes by Kris Austin and the People’s Alliance, making the government much more secure than the tenuous minority government many expected.

Green Party leader David Coon has even remarked that Higgs acts as if he has a majority government, but the premier hasn’t been afraid to put everything on the line for his government’s priorities.

It’s made for an interesting year in the province’s political sphere. Here are three of the biggest stories to emerge from the legislature in 2019.

A return to balanced budgets

Among the accomplishments of its first year, the back-to-back balanced budgets posted by the Higgs government are most likely to be touted by PC MLAs.

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After over a decade of deficits, New Brunswick posted a $72.6-million surplus for 2018-2019, after the governing PCs slashed a budget laid out by the previous Liberal government in 2018.

More surpluses appear to be on the horizon as second quarter results show an expected $88-million surplus for this fiscal year.

READ MORE: Highlights of the New Brunswick budget

“By having our fiscal house in order, we’ll show the rest of the world that New Brunswick is getting its act together,” finance minister Ernie Steeves said in March during his budget speech.

The promising results helped the province avoid a credit downgrade, but the $14 billion in net debt currently being carried by the province is worrisome.

Auditor general Kim MacPherson noted in volume three of her 2019 report that New Brunswick has the highest net debt-to-GDP percentage of any province in the country at 37.4 per cent, and spent $648 million last year just to service its debt.

A made-in-New Brunswick carbon tax

Higgs had never made a secret of what he thought of the federal government’s carbon tax.

The premier continually spoke out against the carbon pricing, saying it would kill jobs in a province that desperately needed them. The province even joined court challenges in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta as an intervener to fight against the federal backstop that was imposed on April 1.

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But in what was one of the most stunning moves of 2019, Higgs said the day after a divisive federal election that the province would explore introducing its own price on carbon.

READ MORE: New Brunswick says new carbon pricing plan would reduce price of gasoline

“Our position was [to] always let the industry pay for the technology to put into research and development and not force taxpayers to pay that,” Higgs said.

“People voted for it, so we in New Brunswick have to find a way to make it work.”

Blaine Higgs to come up with New Brunswick plan on carbon taxing
Blaine Higgs to come up with New Brunswick plan on carbon taxing

The Liberals lost a handful of seats in the province to both the Conservatives and the Greens, but Higgs said it was clear that a majority of New Brunswickers voted for parties that support the tax.

READ MORE: New Brunswick submits second part of new carbon plan to Ottawa for approval

Earlier this month, the consumer plan was approved by Ottawa and legislation currently sits at second reading. The plan is similar to that used in Prince Edward Island and would see provincial gas tax levies lowered, meaning consumers will pay a couple cents less than what they currently pay under the federal backstop.

“Rather than allowing New Brunswickers to continue to pay the high price at the pump on the federal backstop, we would negotiate our own deal,” said environment minister Jeff Carr earlier this month.

Despite being the first premier to embrace the tax after once opposing it, Higgs said the province will continue to act as intervener in the ongoing legal battles over the federal backstop, which he says is about “jurisdictional rights.”

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A matter of confidence

The most dramatic moment of the year came on Dec. 20, when the government passed amendments to the Essential Services in Nursing Homes Act, a vote the premier said he would treat as a confidence matter.

New Brunswick government narrowly passes legislation affecting nursing homes
New Brunswick government narrowly passes legislation affecting nursing homes

The bill lays out a process for determining how many nursing home workers in a given home are essential and so must stay on the job in the event of a strike.

It needed to be passed by the end of the year or workers would be able to strike without restrictions in January.

READ MORE: N.B. election averted as amended nursing home bill passes through marathon committee meeting

But a clause placing conditions on binding arbitration made the bill a tough pill to swallow for opposition parties. Coon called the bill “poisoned” and the Liberals called it an attack on labour.

Both parties attempted to pass amendments that would have removed the conditions from binding arbitration which failed, but a minor government amendment that allows arbitrators to “consider any other relevant factors” was enough to win the support of the Alliance.

READ MORE: Competing amendments to N.B. essential services in nursing homes bill to be introduced next week

Other Alliance members had joined Liberal and Green MLAs in voting for a symbolic non-binding motion calling for the government to enter into binding arbitration with nursing home works earlier this year, but ultimately voted with the government on the bill.

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The 18-month confidence agreement between the Alliance and the PCs is due to expire in May and byelections still need to be called for two vacant seats, meaning 2020 is shaping up to be just as interesting as 2019.