Tag Archives: Victor Boudreau

For whom the road tolls


“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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New Brunswick’s chance for change


It should be clear by now that if New Brunswick has a three-card-monte player’s chance of turning over a new leaf and leaving the mean streets, where gambling on the future is a permanent feature of economic policy, it will be through the resilience, courage and conviction of individual men and women.

Call it the “New Prohibition”. And its temperance leaders include social activists, political players and even a few economists.

“It’s crunch time, New Brunswick,” the provincial minister for strategic review, Victor Boudreau, wrote in a commentary for the Saint John Telegraph-Journal earlier this January. “In one month’s time, we will complete the Strategic Program Review (SPR) process.”

Why anyone would want to slap an acronym on what should be business as usual for any elected government has mystified scholars and plebeians, alike, for at least the past 5,000 years. Still, I digress.

“The. . .process,” Mr. Boudreau said, “consisted of several engagement opportunities allowing New Brunswickers to provide input and ideas on how to right our fiscal ship so we can sail to a better, sustainable future.

“Those opportunities included: 14 public dialogue sessions, five regional stakeholder sessions, community groups hosting their own session, Strategic Program Review forums, and online input through email or by regular mail.

“More than 1,200 people attended our public dialogue sessions, more than 100 representatives of stakeholder groups attended our meetings; more than 9,000 ideas were submitted online, by email or mail.”

All of which might suggest that this provincial government will have to hire back all the people it has laid off just to scrum through the suggestions it has received to, among other things, cut the size of the civil service.

Folks, let’s be clear. These exercises are almost always rigged to separate a fool from his or her aspirations for democratic representation. These road-show barkers don’t really want to hear what you have to say; they desire only to convince you that what you crave for your corner of the world is more important than inspiring you to embrace a true communitarian response to the problems that, to one degree or another, afflict all of us in this province.

What did Machiavelli say about dividing and conquering?

Like three-card-monte, this is a chump’s game that no one but the dealer can win on the mean streets of the villages, towns and cities of one of the least promising provinces in Canada. This is politics, and it rarely changes, though the partisan colours it variously adopts shift and adjust with nauseating frequency.

When will we learn that we are one people in a small, undistinguished part of the world whose best chance at long-term prosperity is to work together in creativity, good humour and risible innovation?

And yet, through the predictable darkness comes some light. Over the past several months, men and women of good conscience in New Brunswick have come forward to embrace the game of chance at a new future. One of these is my colleague and good friend David Campbell, the province’s chief economist. On a mild, wintry day before Christmas, he sat down with a few people in Moncton and outlined his growth plan for the province. It wasn’t perfect, but it was honest, genuine and compassionate.

I’m certain that his provincial bosses coordinated his effort. His disposition and ideas, however, were all his own.

In the end, it will be through the resilience, courage and conviction of people like him – and, like us – that New Brunswick turns over a new leaf.

Call it the “New Prohibition” against the status quo.

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Don’t fear the reaper


Sooner or later, the horseman with the scythe was always coming to New Brunswick, brandishing his blade to cut down the high and low among us. Still, who knew he would materialize in the form of a 33-year-old lawyer-cum-politician from a Sleepy Hollow known as Shediac Bridge?

Premier Brian Gallant, and his operatives in government, are deadly serious about reducing the province’s annual spending load by $600 million, hoping, in turn, to replenish the public accounts and avoid structural bankruptcy before bond-holders on Wall and Bay Streets get wise to the fact that we haven’t known, for years, what we’ve been doing (economically and fiscally, at least) to Canada’s picture-perfect province.

We know now; and it boils down to this: With a $600-million deficit, a $12-billion debt, a population tipping 750,000 on a good day, and an out-migration rate that rivals historical exoduses in almost biblical terms, we simply can’t afford ourselves. Under these circumstances, who could?

Of course, we may know this, deep in our East Coast bones, but do we accept the consequences of our perennial profligacy? Do we actually “get” the fact that we are the authors of our own misfortune? After all, to paraphrase the inimitable Bob Dylan, the hour is late and all along the watchtower, princes keep the view. . .Outside in the distance a wildcat does growl. Two riders are approaching, and the wind begins to howl.

That’s winter for you in southeastern New Brunswick; but one of the riders who now visits us is an all-season, equal-opportunity reaper and nothing, it seems, will distract him from his appointed rounds.

Here’s the latest on the issue from the editorial desk of the CBC last week:

“The New Brunswick government is proposing a long list of cuts, measures to boost revenue and ways to overhaul the delivery of government services to eliminate the province’s $600-million structural deficit. Health Minister Victor Boudreau, the minister responsible for the strategic program review, announced the report at a news conference on Friday.”

Specifically, the minister said, “We want to provide for more opportunity for New Brunswickers to comment on the report. But it is not necessary (to conduct)another round of public consultation, like I did before.”

That’s code for: “Yeah, we’ve talked to New Brunswickers till we’ve gone blue in the face; so, dear citizens, deploy the public porto-potty of open opinion, or. . .well, vacate the pot forthwith.”

Here’s what’s heading towards the political abattoir over the next few months: The idea that drivers get to ride the roads in this province for free (some form of tolls for casual and industrial wheel-men and women are practically inevitable); the notion that smokers and drinkers will be saved from another hike in the cost of their so-called vices (of course, we’d quit, if we didn’t understand how valuable our shekels are to the provincial economy); and the long-standing, utterly absurd protest against a prudent hike in the Harmonized Sales Tax.

As for this last measure, a two per cent increase (from 13 to 15 per cent), accompanied by reasonable exemptions for low-income New Brunswickers, would generate an additional $250-million a year for this province.

Regardless, the horseman comes, brandishing the tools of his trade.

Now, it remains for us to duck his scythe by building the innovative, inventive, productive private sector that will prevent us from ever again laying down our heads on the chopping blocks of economic necessity. 

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The name game


In principle, I do not object to the notion of selling the naming rights to public infrastructure in New Brunswick.

But Tory Opposition Leader Bruce Fitch makes a fair point when he says the scheme, proposed by the Gallant government to raise badly needed cash, risks ignoring citizens who simply don’t possess the wherewithal to ensure that their names live on in splendid glory, affixed to the side of a bridge in the middle of Hicksville, Nowhere County.

“There’s a lot of people that have contributed significantly to the province of New Brunswick,” he told the Telegraph-Journal last week, “yet they maybe aren’t of great means or haven’t been able to donate hundreds-of-thousands of dollars to a capital campaign.”

Hear, hear!

Why, I, myself, have spent an inordinate amount of time pitching and boosting a mixed-used, multi-purpose downtown events center for Moncton. Let’s call that my contribution to the moral and spiritual health of the locality and dub the facility appropriately: “The Brucesplex”.

Of course, there’s also the contiguous system of pot-hole-riddled roads that my wife and I have travelled faithfully from Moncton to the Confederation Bridge, across the Abegweit Passage of the Northumberland Strait, and into Charlottetown, to visit our grand-kids and their parents. Henceforth, let us know these byways and highways collectively as “The Bruceway”.

Still, paupers like myself (even, unlike myself, genuinely influential ones) do nothing for the provincial budget by having their names gratuitously slapped on the odd park bench. As Victor Boudreau, the provincial minister responsible for the government’s strategic program review, told reporters last week, “If we can generate a million or two that doesn’t have to come out of the pockets of New Brunswickers to help us address the fiscal challenge we’re facing in the province, then maybe it’s a option worth considering.”

Clearly, then, this particular name game is reserved for the playgrounds of the rich and influential, where participants don’t mind forking over sizeable sums in return for designated immortality etched into the edifices of the province’s public works. This, naturally, raises other concerns among the hoi polloi; chief among them is the danger of branding New Brunswick according to the increasingly narrow constraints of those in possession of real money.

Last month, Barrie Examiner ran a piece touching on a similar issue in its neck of the woods. “Councillors heard the pitch about a plan to sell naming rights of city facilities and sponsorship of programs, events and other community initiatives,” reporter Bob Bruton wrote. “It could generate a net income of almost $850,000 during its first five years, after staff, marketing and servicing costs are paid. ‘Barrie is like a lot of municipalities. They are looking for new and innovative ways to find revenue,’ said Bernie Colterman, Centre of Excellence for Public Sector Marketing, who’s been in the business for 20 years. ‘The timing is right for sponsorship. You have to look at this as a positive thing.’”

On the other hand, Councillor Bonnie Ainsworth worried that the community’s Eastview Arena, for example, might suffer from an inappropriate proximity to filthy lucre. “We don’t want someone to look up and have it named Jimmy’s Tow Truck Arena,” she said.

All of this, however, could be moot. As Marvin Ryder, a marketing professor at McMaster University in Hamilton, recently told The National Post, the name game may not be as remunerative as government officials hope.

“The only place where this has worked well is in sports facilities,” he said.

Indeed, in New Brunswick, a highway or a bridge by any other name would still be as harrowing.

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