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New Brunswick Finance Minister Ernie Steeves stands in the legislature, in Fredericton, on March 10, 2020.Stephen MacGillivray/The Canadian Press

The New Brunswick government tabled an $11.3-billion budget Tuesday that provides a small surplus and promises income tax cuts to help offset rising gas prices.

“This is truly a budget for all New Brunswickers,” Finance Minister Ernie Steeves said as he presented the budget in the New Brunswick Legislature.

Mr. Steeves said the government has paid down the net debt by nearly a billion dollars over the past four years, and with a population on the verge of surpassing 800,000, the government is now building on success.

“To maintain this momentum, we must prepare now,” he said. “Consider the demand for services in health care, education and early childhood development. A growing population also means increased demand for housing and more traffic using our transportation networks.”

While the government is projecting a surplus of $35-million for 2022-23, that’s small in comparison to the $488-million surplus for the current fiscal year that ends March 31.

Net debt will increase over the next year by $15.4-million to $12.99-billion dollars, which represents $16,332 for every New Brunswicker. However the province’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which is seen as an indicator of a government’s ability to pay off its debt, is expected to be 30.1 per cent and continue to drop over the next two years.

In keeping with federally mandated carbon-pricing requirements, effective April 1, the province’s carbon tax will increase from the equivalent of $40 a tonne to $50 a tonne. That represents an increase of 2.21 cents a litre on gasoline and 2.68 cents a litre on diesel.

In response, Mr. Steeves is promising some income-tax cuts. He says the province’s basic personal amount will be increased from $10,817 to $11,720 and the low-income tax reduction threshold from $18,268 to $19,177, effective for the 2022 taxation year.

“This will provide an estimated $40-million in personal income tax relief to over 400,000 taxpayers for 2022 and ensure single tax filers with incomes up to $19,177 pay no provincial income tax for 2022,” Mr. Steeves said.

Provincial property-tax rate cuts that were promised two years ago but postponed because of the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic will now be phased in over the next three years, including a 50 per cent reduction for residential properties that aren’t occupied by the owner, such as apartment buildings and other rental properties.

New Brunswick’s Common Front for Social Justice said those changes represent $112-million in lost revenue that the government could have spent on public services and social housing. The property tax cut “serves the greedy and not the needy,” the group said in a news release.

Mr. Steeves said in order to protect tenants, the government is imposing a one-year cap of 3.8 per cent on allowable rent increases, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2022. Government spending on affordable housing will increase by $6.3 million.

People’s Alliance Leader Kris Austin said he sees a lot of positive measures in the budget, especially the rent cap.

“It is an effective way to ensure tenants get some benefit, and it should be long-term,” Mr. Austin told reporters. “After the year, it should be reviewed and looked at in a more permanent setting.”

Green Leader David Coon also expressed support for the rent cap and said he hopes it stays after the year is over. “It’s a bit high compared to other jurisdictions,” he said, pointing to Ontario and B.C., where rent increases are capped at 1.2 and 1.5 per cent.

The province’s health care budget has been set at $3.2 billion – an increase of 6.4 per cent. But Liberal finance critic Rob McKee said he doesn’t see any sign that the government will address staffing shortages in health care.

And Mr. McKee said he has trouble trusting the government’s financial projections. “The economy is still growing, and I think they are underestimating revenues like they’ve done in years past,” he said. “I won’t be surprised next year if we are in a large surplus position.”

He points to last year’s budget when the government projected a $244-million deficit but is now ending the year with a surplus of nearly $488 million.

More than 20 per cent of New Brunswickers are aged 65 or older, which is second only to Newfoundland and Labrador, and the province faces significant challenges in providing services.

In response, $38.6-million will be spent during 2022-23 to increase wages for human-services workers, including in home support, group homes and employment and support services agencies. Finance Department officials say that will roughly translate to an increase of two dollars an hour.

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