Critics await cuts after ‘jobs and growth’ budget

Federal deficit on track to disappear in three years: Conservatives

It’s a case of fiscal deja vu.

The new federal budget is much the same as the Conservatives’ pre-election ‘Jobs and Growth’ budget, South Surrey-White Rock-Cloverdale MP Russ Hiebert admits.

But he’s hoping there’s a few additions that will please taxpayers in the $281.4-billion package – including a promise the federal deficit will evaporate as early as 2014-15.

“We’re now on track to eliminate our deficit one year earlier than planned,” Hiebert said in a statement prepared shortly after the budget was released Monday by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

“That means, in three years time, we’ll have a balanced budget and then we can reduce taxes even further for hard-working Canadian families.”

Hiebert pointed out the Conservative government’s plan calls for a reduction in overall program spending by five per cent – which is estimated to produce $4 billion in annual savings starting next fiscal year.

But critics, such as NDP Opposition leader Jack Layton, have faulted the budget for giving no specifics of program cuts – noting the Conservatives have previously claimed civil-service attrition would take care of much of the reduction in spending.

Tax giveaways to profitable corporations as a function of targeted job creation have also come under fire from the NDP.

Aside from compensation to Quebec for implementing the HST, the only other budget measure to gain Opposition approval is a $400-million extension of the ecoEnergy program, which encourages home renovations that reduce electricity and heating costs, something the NDP had requested in earlier budget discussions.

Local NDP candidate Susan Keeping, who polled second highest in Hiebert’s riding in last month’s election, said the budget is “disappointing.”

“On a personal level, when I look at this budget, I see a five per cent reduction, but nobody says where this is coming from. That makes me uncomfortable – people should be demanding to know what is going to be cut. The government, as our representatives, needs to be open and honest about this.”

Keeping said she believes that civil-service attrition will not be a factor in the Conservatives’ reduction in spending.

“If they’re doing a quick five per cent cut, they are not going to be waiting for people to move on or retire,” she said.

Keeping, a White Rock resident and executive director of the Newton Advocacy Group Society, said she is particularly concerned about impacts on social services.

“I have heard they are looking at what the Liberals did when they came into office and wanted to reduce the deficit. We all know how much that hurt health, education and social services.”

Keeping said the recent Homeless Count in the Lower Mainland indicated social services are managing to make some headway in helping society’s poorest.

“When cuts come, we may lose the headway we’ve gained,” she warned.

But Hiebert noted the new budget includes increases to transfer payments for health care and education in B.C. The health-care component will rise to almost $3.8 billion, an increase of $216 million over last year, while the Canada Social Transfer, which funds education and housing, now stands at $1.5 billion – a rise of $349 million since 2005-’06.

Surrey Board of Trade CEO Anita Huberman said that while the new budget offers “no surprises” – it is still, like the pre-election budget, “good news for business.”

“What we’ve always wanted is for them to restore the budget balance – to reduce debt so that there is a balanced budget, and we’re hopeful they can do that by 2014-15,” she said.

“We want to ensure the economy is competitive and that we’re not raising taxes for business, and this includes only a minimal increase in business taxes.

“The biggest challenge for the federal government is to restrain their program spending while not compromising social-service programs. The Surrey Board of Trade is serious about not compromising those programs, which are all part and parcel of a healthy economy.”