Montreal Gazette

No austerity measures, Legault vows

Girard gives warnings on deficit as CAQ'S pre-session caucus wraps


SHERBROOKE Mayors do not have to pay money to the Coalition Avenir Québec in order to meet cabinet ministers, Premier François Legault said Thursday, trying to quash his first controvers­y of the new year — a year he said Wednesday he hopes will be free of “distractio­ns.”

And responding to criticism that his government cares little about the way the English-speaking community feels regarding language policies, Legault said anglophone­s need to understand it's “a plus” for Quebec to have a distinct language and culture.

“We have to spend more time explaining it's not against them that we have to protect French,” he said.

Wrapping up a two-day caucus meeting of his 89 MNAS, a tanned, rested and energized Legault said he is anxious to put the dud year of 2023 behind him and start delivering better services to Quebecers. Despite entering the second year of a second mandate, he said he sees the CAQ as a vector of change.

Despite a gloomy economic picture presented to reporters earlier in the day by Finance Minister Eric Girard, Legault insisted he has no intention of cutting services or imposing a form of austerity on Quebec to haul the province's books out of the red zone.

“There is a challenge, more budgetary rigour, but there won't be austerity,” he said.

At his first news conference of 2024, Legault was dogged by allegation­s some of his backbenche­rs are asking mayors for small payments to the CAQ in order to gain access to cabinet ministers who can move their projects ahead.

Ethics commission­er Ariane Mignolet has opened an investigat­ion into allegation­s Chauveau MNA Sylvain Lévesque, who is also a vice-president of the legislatur­e, used his National Assembly email address to solicit money from a citizen who wanted to meet a minister.

There was another report alleging Rousseau MNA Louis-charles Thouin offered a meeting with a minister in return for a $100 donation to the party.

“I want to be very clear,” Legault said when asked about the reports. “Mayors do not need to pay to see ministers. Ministers are available.

“Do we need to reword the way we write certain invitation­s? Brigitte Legault (director general of the party) is looking at this.”

Legault and Treasury Board president Sonia Lebel also moved to defuse another potentiall­y damaging issue: whether MNAS, who already received a 30 per cent wage increase, should — on top of that money — be entitled to the same salary increases as the rest of the public service.

At Legault's side for the news conference, Lebel insisted MNAS will not get the extra money beyond the 2023 increase they are already earning.

“We are looking at finding a mechanism to do this,” she said.

Legault sketched out some of the issues his government intends to tackle in the new session of the legislatur­e, which opens Tuesday.

He said dealing with the housing crisis is at the top of the list, with Labour Minister Jean Boulet set to present new legislatio­n next week to modernize the constructi­on industry. The party wants to introduce more flexibilit­y into the system and find ways to recruit more workers from minority communitie­s.

Quebec plans to renew the fasttrack constructi­on training programs it launched in October to deal with the desperate shortage of workers, Legault added. A day earlier, he revealed Hydro-québec alone will need 35,000 more workers to realize its own massive infrastruc­ture projects.

“What interests me a lot is that we be able to reduce constructi­on wait times, that we lower costs and that we have a better co-ordination between our ability to build and needs,” Boulet said.

The issue of immigratio­n and asylum seekers will be hovering in the background of the session. Legault said the government is examining ways to limit the arrival of more temporary foreign workers.

Girard will present the spring budget as well.

Meeting reporters earlier Thursday, Girard revealed that with the economy stagnating and expenses up, Quebec is headed for a larger deficit than planned, and possibly a delay in balancing the province's books.

“It's mathematic­al,” Girard said. “At this stage, the deficits will be more significan­t.”

He would not repeat that he intends to bring back balanced books by 2027-28 — a pledge he made in the last several budgets, which ran deficits. Quebec's deficit for the fiscal year 2023-24 is projected to be $4.1 billion.

“I'm giving it to you straight,” Girard said. “I said the fact the economy is stagnating adds pressure on revenues, and the negotiatio­ns with the public sector added a material pressure on spending. This will certainly have an impact.”

“It's difficult for businesses, it's difficult for citizens. It's also difficult for the government.”

Girard refused to reveal the overall impact the drop in revenues and increase in spending is having.

“All this will be revealed in good time,” he said. “The best time to reveal the total impact will be in the budget.”

 ?? DAVE SIDAWAY ?? Finance Minister Eric Girard says Quebec is headed for a larger deficit than planned, and possibly a delay in balancing the books.
DAVE SIDAWAY Finance Minister Eric Girard says Quebec is headed for a larger deficit than planned, and possibly a delay in balancing the books.

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