For whom the road tolls

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“Popular” is not exactly the word that leaps to mind when talking about toll roads and tax hikes, but if you’re contemplating steps to render both as facts of life for New Brunswickers, a little spin goes a long way.

So it was earlier this week when the provincial minister of the Gallant government’s strategic review, Victor Boudreau, and Finance Minister Roger Melanson, very nearly spilled the beans, observing that of all the options for eliminating the provincial deficit they’ve presented to the public, the most “popular” were tolling roads and raising the HST.

Of course, neither Liberal MLA spoke directly to either issue in advance of next week’s budget, preferring, instead, to issue vague assessments of the vox populi’s current mood on the twin subjects of spending cuts and revenue raising.

Mr. Boudreau: “There has been a lot of work being done over the last number of months. I do think you’re going to see something that is going to, at the end of the day, address the fiscal challenge we are facing as a province, but doing it while maintaining. . .balance.. . .New Brunswickers have made it clear they don’t want to see deep cuts to health care and education.”

He also allowed that the debate over toll roads has been the most interesting component of the consultations: “A lot of people want tolls, but very few people want to pay for them.”

There you have it, ladies and gentlemen: This province’s existential problem in a nutshell. We New Brunswickers want to lasso the moon; we just don’t want to buy the rope.

In this, of course, we’re no different than anyone else. Still, our unique set of economic circumstances insists that we adopt a colder-eyed approach to solving our shared problems than ever before.

When Mr. Gallant began his review of government spending months ago, he declared that everything was on the table – on both the expenditure and revenue side of the ledger.

If that’s true, then next week’s budget should reveal a dramatically reduced (in both size and cost) civil service, with those savings redirected into strategies and programs that are likely to grow the economy and create jobs and, in so doing, goose tax revenues to public coffers.

But let’s not kid ourselves. We are well past the point where even the most efficiently run government and bureaucracy can pull our fat from the fire. This is not an overnight proposition. It will take years of lean, mean management in the public sector to keep the ship of state of a steady keel.

In the meantime, emergency measures are urgently, if lamentably, necessary. And that means tolls and taxes, neither of which, incidentally, need be especially onerous.

Virtually every economist I’ve consulted over the years stipulates that taxes on consumption are eminently more efficient and fundamentally fairer than levies on income. What’s more, those who subsist below a certain standard of living ought to receive rebates equal to their HST outlays.

Indeed, if all provinces along the East Coast actually harmonized again their harmonized sales taxes into one 15 per cent regime for all, as Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil suggests they do, the unfair competitive pressures on the private sector would melt.

Tolls are somewhat more difficult to administer and collect than taxes without undermining the monetary value of the exercise, itself. But it can be done, and to great effect, as it is in other jurisdictions across North America.

Think of taxes and roadway fees as temporary measures that, nonetheless, toll for thee.

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