There was a glimmer of good fiscal news for New Brunswick Wednesday when the provincial government revealed it was able to salvage a budget surplus last year despite a burst of COVID-19 spending in its final days.
The province recorded a surplus of $48.7 million in 2019-20 — below an optimistic pre-pandemic projection, but still higher than what was originally budgeted and far better than the huge deficit this year.
"The last eight months have been just a whirlwind, and the budget released back in March does seem like a hundred years ago, and this of course is even further," said Finance Minister Ernie Steeves.
"But yeah, it is a good news story. Anytime you can get a surplus, anytime you can pay down some money on the budget, that's a great news story."
The figures include a $38.6-million reduction in the province's net debt, the first time it has been reduced in 13 years and a bright spot given the subsequent COVID-19 budget crunch.
"If we hadn't done that, it would have been $36 million deeper in the hole now," Steeves said. "Does it soften it? I don't know. It was a good accomplishment."
Steeves forecast a modest surplus of $23.1 million in his first budget in early 2019.
But by February of this year, a revenue windfall had improved the projection to $97.8 million.
Then COVID-19 hit, adding millions in new spending to the bottom line in the final two weeks of the fiscal year.
A one-time $900 New Brunswick Workers Emergency Income Benefit was announced March 24 and its $42 million expense was tacked on to the 2019-20 books.
Even with that added expense, the government trimmed other spending and ended up with its $48.7 million surplus, according to final figures verified by Auditor-General Kim MacPherson.
The picture in the current 2020-21 fiscal year is considerably bleaker. Pandemic spending wiped out many of the assumptions that Steeves used for his 2020-21 budget, which he introduced just days before the province went into its first COVID-19 lockdown.
Steeves had budgeted a $92.4 million surplus, but in June, he told a committee of MLAs that crashing revenue and soaring expenses had wiped that out, leaving the province on track for a $343 million deficit this year.