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Finance Minister Tom Osborne unclear about when Newfoundland and Labrador provincial budget will return to surplus

Finance Minister Tom Osborne speaks to reporters Tuesday.
Finance Minister Tom Osborne speaks to reporters Tuesday. - David Maher
ST. JOHN'S, N.L. —

Finance Minister Tom Osborne continues to be unclear on whether the plan to get the province back to surplus by 2022-23 is still on the agenda. 

The fifth sentence of the 2016 budget speech, delivered by then-Finance minister Cathy Bennett, contains a commitment “to ensure Newfoundland and Labrador is positioned to return to a surplus in budget 2022.”

On Tuesday, Osborne offered less certain terms on whether the 2022-23 commitment is still government policy. 

“Mid-year update would be out within the next couple of weeks. I’ll have a better understanding at that particular time, once all the numbers are finalized. The reality is that, at that particular time, we’ll be able to provide greater detail,” he said. 

“Certainly, when the budget comes out in 2020, we’ll be able to provide further detail.”

“I assure you I will not be closing hospitals in order to return to surplus."
— Tom Osborne, finance minister

Osborne says there have been bumps along the road to surplus, which could have bumped it off track.

“There are unexpected occurrences, such as we had an oil shut down last year, two shutdowns this year. I’ve indicated in the legislature a couple of days ago that the interest on government’s borrowings for Muskrat Falls this year are $98 million,” he said.

“In January of 2016 we didn’t fully anticipate the level of borrowing that government would have to undertake for Muskrat Falls, for example. That was unexpected, to a certain degree.

"There’s hundreds of millions of dollars of dividends that NL Hydro used to give to government that’s now going to fund Muskrat Falls. Similarly, there’s a couple hundred million in dividends so far from Nalcor Oil and Gas that’s going to Hydro. We’re dealing with a situation that, even in 2016, wasn’t fully appreciated, the gravity of the situation.”

Tony Wakeham. - Contributed
Tony Wakeham. - Contributed

Osborne says there are some lines in the sand he will not cross.

“I assure you I will not be closing hospitals in order to return to surplus,” he said.

The 2019 budget said $617 million in spending cuts will be needed to hit the 2022-23 target. The Progressive Conservatives issued a media release Tuesday asking for details about the plan. 

Tory finance critic Tony Wakeham says the issue isn’t the budget cuts, but the lack of detail surrounding how the government plans to get there. 

“There is a fiscal plan that all departments prepare. We asked for it and were turned down because of cabinet confidentiality. We know it exists,” said Wakeham.

“All we’ve continued to say is show us the numbers. That’s what we’re going to continue to focus on. I think people have a right to know. If government is planning significant reductions, then tell the people what you’re planning to do. Don’t hide behind it,” he said. 

New Democratic Party Leader Alison Coffin says the antics in the House of Assembly so far in the fall sitting may make collaborating on the budget more difficult, but she hopes to move on.

“It all depends on what’s in the budget. Certainly, it’s been my intent to rise above things like that. It seems that may be under control right now. I’d like to think that better behaviour is coming,” said Coffin. 

“The budget itself will determine whether or not we will support the budget. Important in that is how New Democrat ideas and our platform and issues we’ve raised are incorporated into that budget.”

Twitter: @DavidMaherNL

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