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The 2017-18 provincial budget was released earlier this week and there are some major red flags for the business community. While the Province’s operating deficit may be declining, the bigger concern for New Brunswickers and our member businesses is our collective debt exceeding $14 billion. The government’s revised total debt for the end of 2017 was $670 million higher than their estimate and the 2018 estimate is to add another $362 million. Considering that New Brunswick pays nearly $2 million per day in interest payments, this figure is ​the ​ major concern for the provincial finances.

Despite a provincial debt that amounts to nearly $20,000 for every person in the province, Finance Minister Cathy Rogers’ budget speech stated that the government is not introducing new revenue measures or expenditure restraint in the 2017-18 budget. We were quite surprised that the government is not attempting to further restrain spending in 2017-18 - it was broadly understood that the Strategic Program Review would require a sustained effort on restraint over multiple years and multiple mandates. Of course, we didn’t want to see new taxes or other costs to business as our members are experiencing tax fatigue and the costs of increases in recent budgets continue to accumulate and act as a drag on the economy.

Now that another holiday season has come and gone, we are looking ahead to 2017 and working towards economic growth, low unemployment and new opportunities - in short, the embodiment of the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce’s vision: ​Community Prosperity Through Business. In the spirit of the season, we have put together a wish list for 2017 to see this vision become reality.

Getting Costs Under Control.​ 2016 was a tough year for business costs in New Brunswick, with increases to personal income tax, the minimum wage, HST and corporate tax. Already in 2017, businesses are facing a massive 33% increase (on average) in worker’s compensation premiums, with signals that 2018 will be just as dramatic, another increase in the minimum wage and a new provincial budget coming down on January 31st. With a pending carbon tax in 2018 and a hike in the Canada Pension Plan in 2019, businesses are nervous with cost uncertainty.

Businesses and not-for-profit organizations across the province were shocked in October when WorkSafe New Brunswick announced that the average assessment rate for New Brunswick employers in 2017 will increase from $1.11 per $100 of payroll to $1.48 per $100 of payroll. This 33% increase will have an immediate and significant impact on New Brunswick’s employers and economy. Many businesses are struggling for survival in New Brunswick and their challenges are accumulating.

In the past year employers have seen increases in personal income tax, the minimum wage, HST and corporate tax. Now they are facing a massive increase in worker’s compensation premiums in 2017, a carbon tax in 2018, a hike in the Canada Pension Plan in 2019 - at a minimum. The federal government is now signalling their intention to tax health and dental benefits in their upcoming budget and WorkSafeNB acting President and CEO Tim Peterson has indicated employers should expect another significant increase for 2018 and possibly beyond.

As the Department of Finance prepares the third budget of the current provincial mandate, the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce urges the government to ignore the political election cycle and fully commit to making decisions that will get our province back on its fiscal track in the near term. Our recent pre-budget submission to Finance Minister Cathy Rogers focuses on two things – reducing the Province’s debt in the short-term and investing in our people in the long-term.

We recognize government cannot and should not run fully like a business, but there are some broad principles that can and should be adopted - particularly when it comes to finances. Any business< facing a fiscal situation analogous to New Brunswick’s would take one of two courses of action: (1) take immediate action to stop financial losses with a view to reinvesting those savings into future growth with a clear vision; or (2) close its doors and file for bankruptcy.

The economic and demographic challenges faced in New Brunswick are no secret to anyone in the province. An aging and stagnant population places financial and social pressures on our province that we will not be able to handle in the not-too-distant future if we don’t act now.

The Fredericton Chamber of Commerce believes that increasing support for entrepreneurial newcomers is part of the answer to address both our economic and demographic challenges.

That’s why we launched the Business Immigrant Mentorship Program in 2009. That program introduces newcomers with local business people as mentors and instructors - helping to bridge the gap that exists between doing business in Canada and their home countries. This model has since been rolled out across New Brunswick and in several other western provinces. In 2014 we rolled out Phase 2, with the Hive Incubator. This immersive business environment gives our entrepreneurial newcomers office space and access to valuable resources - most importantly the other business people in the ecosystem.

With the release of the New Brunswick government’s quarterly fiscal update, there has been an increased focus on our economy of late. I would like to see this become the norm every day of the year. Our fiscal situation is our province’s greatest challenge ­ our debt, continual deficits and lack of growth hangs over all aspects of public life. It restricts our ability to provide effective social services, education and infrastructure; it means we cannot make timely and substantial investments; and it means we aren’t creating the jobs that retain our youth and attract newcomers.

When you ask most people what they consider government’s most important service they will tell you health care. Businesses have told us time and again that when they are recruiting employees, one of the first questions they ask is whether they will be able to get a doctor for their family. Its also a consideration for business owners and managers considering setting up shop in New Brunswick. This intersection of business and personal matters is one of the reasons the Fredericton Chamber of Commerce’s vision is Community Prosperity Through Business and why we’ve been involved in physician recruitment for nearly a decade.

It seems like everyone has an opinion on the proposed Energy East pipeline. And that’s a good thing ­ the more engaged citizens are, the better off we will be as a province. Unfortunately, there remains a lot of noise and misinformation about this project, pipelines in general and natural resource development as a whole. Opponents have been emboldened by the blockage of the Keystone XL pipeline and continue to peddle a simplistic narrative of ‘economy vs environment’ ­ they know that if the issue was really that black and white, we would all pick environment. Every time. But it isn’t that simple.

As the National Energy Board hearings on the Energy East pipeline began earlier this week in Saint John for the first of ten sessions (the second is in Fredericton beginning August 15, 2016), it may be instructive to focus on what we know.

The rapid growth in passenger traffic at the Fredericton International Airport (“FIA”) has been one the major success stories in our community over the past decade. Since the financial crisis in 2009, passenger numbers have been on the rise ­ 264,000 in 2009 to 350,000 in 2015. This trend has continued in 2016, with first quarter traffic up 22% over the same period last year. There are plenty of statistics that illustrate the province’s dire economic situation, but the airport’s growth is a harbinger of opportunity. To fully realize this potential, the FIA must have the infrastructure to accommodate its own growth or we risk losing this momentum.

After years of stagnant population growth, New Brunswick’s population has actually been declining over the last three years. This problem has been well­documented and represents the biggest threat to our province in both the immediate­ and long­term. Bringing in and retaining more immigrants ­ including refugees ­ isn’t a social question, it’s an economic one. It isn’t a magic bullet that will solve all of our problems, but it isn’t optional either ­ it’s required for our survival.

We need to increase our population by about 1% per year in order to keep pace with the country and grow the economy according to economist Richard Saillant. That’s about 7,500 people. Our population has declined for the past three years. Right now we are bringing in around 1,000 per year under the our primary immigration mechanism ­ the Provincial Nominee Program. On average, New Brunswick couples are having 1.6 children. Our economy has been stagnant at best for nearly a decade. We need people. A lot of them.

Today, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce and chambers of commerce from across the country are publically recognizing natural resource development as an important economic driver. A key part of Canada’s future prosperity means creating the conditions for our natural resource sectors to succeed. Nowhere is this more apparent than in New Brunswick.

The Sisson Project mine, Energy East Pipeline and natural gas development are near­term opportunities that we must seize. As a key part of Canada’s and New Brunswick’s economic mix, any serious plan for creating jobs, greening our economy and reaching out to new markets has to place the competitiveness of the resources sector at its core. These projects ­ or natural resource development generally ­ aren’t the only answer, but they are opportunities that we cannot afford to ignore.