Finance minister in Amherst on Monday
AMHERST – Finance Minister Diana Whalen is looking forward to an open dialog with members of Amherst’s business community.
“I want to signal to the people gathered and to the wider community that this is the start of a conversation,” Whalen said after meeting with business leaders Monday during pre-budget deliberations. “I don’t see it as just being a few weeks before budget time that the finance minister visits. I think the budget process is year round with government so we need to get out early and gather input on the following year’s budget.”
The minister began her deliberations earlier this month at a high school in Cape Breton and will continue meeting with business leaders across the province in the weeks leading up to the Liberal government’s first budget in the spring.
Following the budget, the minister plans to continue the discussions.
“I’ve only been minister for four months and having this opportunity is really important to that first budget, but what I hear will be part of a longer discussion,” Whalen said.
The minister said the input has been good. She said she was surprised with the pessimism shown by young people in Cape Breton about their future, while the business community has a lot more optimism.
Whalen said the message she received from the Amherst community on Monday was mostly about taxes and the pressures they are facing.
“I know the rates we have aren’t competitive compared to other jurisdictions. That is a difficulty for business,” the minister said, adding she will soon be kicking off a tax review to look at rates, fees and regulations.
While she’s interested in how the tax system can be tweaked, she cautioned it won’t be as easy as restoring the reduction to the HST that was promised by the former NDP government.
“We are running a deficit and aren’t in a position to cut our revenue,” she said. “If there are suggestions made that are going to significantly lower our revenue we will have to find another way to increase it because we’re already not paying our way.”
While reducing tax might not be an option right now, the minister suggested changing regulations and cutting red tape could provide an incentive to business.
Another message Whalen brought to Monday’s meeting was one of accessibility, adding she is listening to what the community has to say and the input brought to her by MLA Terry Farrell.
While people are focused on the tax issue, Farrell said the focus has to be on development, creating jobs and making Cumberland County attractive as a service centre to southeastern New Brunswick.
The minister stressed the importance of everyone working co-operatively across the province and avoiding putting Halifax against the rest of province. She said what’s good for one area is good for all areas and stressed the rural voice is just as strong in government as that from Halifax.