The yelling began almost immediately during question period in the House of Assembly, as Liberal Leader Dwight Ball tore into the government for “fiscal mismanagement.” It was a raucous start as politicians returned to the House Thursday.
For months, politicians have been talking about the forecasted $1.6-billion budget deficit looming for the coming year, but this was the opposition parties’ first chance to question the government directly on the floor of the legislature.
In the House, Ball argued that the fiscal crunch is the result of years of Tory carelessness and poor planning.
“It took us almost 50 years to get to $9 billion in debt. You are forecasting $4 billion in three years,” Ball said.
Premier Kathy Dunderdale said the government has been forecasting budget shortfalls for a while now, and this is nothing new.
“We have known for some time that we’re going to have a large deficit,” she said to reporters following question period. “It’s news to me that anybody predicted that in 2014-2015 that we’d be back in the black.”
In fact, when then-finance minister Tom Marshall delivered his budget speech last April, he predicted a $44-million budget surplus for the 2014-15 budget year.
Times have changed since then, though.
Due partly to lower-than-forecasted oil prices, the province is facing a $1.6-billion deficit in the 2013 budget year, and another $1.6-billion deficit in the 2014 budget year.
The government has been doing a “core mandate analysis” over the past year, and is preparing to make deep spending cuts to reduce the size of the budget shortfall.
Both the Liberals and the New Democrats said the current fiscal mess is the result of poor planning on Dunderdale’s part.
When she was asked by reporters what she would cut to reduce the deficit, NDP Leader Lorraine Michael said if she were premier, things would have gone differently.
“I really do believe I would have been doing longer-term planning,” she said. “I wouldn’t have been waiting until $1.6 billion was upon us.”
As often happens in the House of Assembly these days, the issue quickly devolved into a debate on the Muskrat Falls megaproject.
Michael used her first question of the day to ask whether Dunderdale knew the province was facing a $1.6-billion deficit before she formally sanctioned the $7.7-billion hydroelectric project in December.
Dunderdale seemed exasperated talking about the issue. She has gone to great lengths to explain that Muskrat Falls spending won’t be counted as part of the budget deficit.
“Let me repeat again how happy I am to be back in the House of Assembly because we really have to start dealing with fact as opposed to spin. Muskrat Falls is one of the best projects to happen to this province in a very long time,” Dunderdale said, responding to Michael during question period.
The yelling about the province’s fiscal position will likely continue for many more weeks. All three parties have said it’s the No. 1 issue for them in the spring session of the legislature.