When finance minister Ernie Steeves tables this year’s budget on Tuesday afternoon, it will be the first directly addressing the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Last March, Steeves admitted that some of the numbers were already out of date by the time the budget was tabled, as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on global financial markets.
But speaking to reporters on March 9, 2020 one of the minister’s biggest concerns was the impact of the nascent virus on lobster exports to Asia.
“So far, the downturn in the economy hasn’t hit New Brunswick,” Steeves said.
“We haven’t had a confirmed case in New Brunswick, but it is going to happen. The lobster industry is going to be facing some problems. Our main exporter is China.”
Premier Blaine Higgs told Global News that the planned surplus, and payment towards the net debt would be redirected to tackle the impact of the pandemic if need be.
The situation changed quickly. The day after the budget was passed, the province recorded it’s first presumptive case. Then, on March 13, the budget was passed in 17 minutes to allow focus to be turned entirely to the pandemic. Later that day public schools were closed for two weeks, to be evaluated on an ongoing basis, after the first meeting of the all-party COVID cabinet committee.
Over the last year the province has spent over $200 million related to the COVID-19 pandemic, none of which was accounted for in the budget. A projected surplus of $92 million has turned into a deficit of $13 million at last estimate.
Speaking with reporters on Monday, Steeves declined to say much about the specifics of the budget, titled “Reinventing New Brunswick Together.”
“It’s not a budget that I particularly want to deliver, but it’s a budget that New Brunswick needs,” he said.
The context surrounding this budget is not just different from a public health and economic standpoint either. The political situation is radically different than it was a year ago.
Higgs’ minority government was still reeling following proposed and quickly cancelled health-care reforms that would have seen six rural emergency rooms closed overnight. Kevin Vickers, then-leader of the Liberal opposition, vowed to do whatever necessary to topple the government.
“The budget is going to serve a cornerstone for the government to continue its cuts to healthcare,” Vickers said on March 10, 2020, despite health-care expenditures actually rising in that budget.”
A year later, Vickers is gone, having failed to win his own seat in the summer election that saw Higgs gain a majority.
“The pandemic certainly was a turning point for the Higgs government,” said Jamie Gillies, an associate professor of public policy and communications at St. Thomas University. “The fact that the Liberals felt the were in a good position to take down the government and form a government is pretty indicative of where we were politically at the beginning of 2020.
“Flash forward a year and all of a sudden the Liberals are out of power and without a permanent leader and the Conservatives now have an opportunity to present their vision of New Brunswick going forward.”
Gillies noted that New Brunswick spent relatively little in pandemic response compared to other jurisdictions, putting the government on fairly stable fiscal footing. He said he will be looking to see how Higgs treats this budget, after two straight budgets focused on reigning in the spending of the previous government.
“It will be interesting to see if they see this budget as kind of a spending budget,” Gillies said.
“Maybe this time around they’re going to look at programs they actually want to spend money, which are then Conservative programs that they can then go forward on into the next election.”
But whether the budget will look to advance the broader priorities of the Higgs government, or remain focused purely on the fallout from the last year, is still an open question.
“Will this completely alter the trajectory of the government that Blaine Higgs thought he wanted to deliver when he became leader of the party?” asks JP Lewis, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Brunswick Saint John.
Lewis suggests the answer to that question is not yet.
“When will that reset be? I don’t think it will be tomorrow,” he said.
“It’s hard to imagine this not being framed in the context of what the province is going through.”
Steeves is scheduled to begin his budget speech at 1:00 pm Tuesday.