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N.B. premier defends $300 payment to workers, saying it's a 'good news story'

FREDERICTON — New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs says he's surprised by the backlash he's received for his promise to give workers a one-time payment of $300.

Higgs told reporters Tuesday that his $75-million program to help make life more affordable should be seen as a "good news story."

He said he's disappointed that his government is being criticized for not including everyone, especially seniors, in the latest cost-of-living measure, he said.

"I found in this job that I often have to take a lot of abuse to move forward on files," he said. "But in this file, it was quite surprising."

To qualify for the $300, a New Brunswicker has to be working and have a net family income of $70,000 or less in 2022 or 2023. And only one payment will be given to each family.

Green Leader David Coon said one of the main criticisms of the program is that many people fall through the cracks because they are retired, can't work, have a disability or have a family income of more than $70,000.

"I think the overwhelming thing is, from most people that I've heard, they understood this was going to help them with a little bit of extra money to cover costs when they don't put gas in their car to be able to put food on their table," he said.

"But the most vulnerable and those in the greatest need, in many cases, are not eligible."

Higgs said his government has taken other steps to help people with inflation, including reducing income tax, cutting child-care costs and increasing the low-income seniors benefit by 50 per cent.

"But we hadn't really done what we could maybe do for the working class. That was a target of this particular affordability (measure)."

Higgs said the payment will benefit at least 250,000 people.

Liberal Leader Susan Holt questioned whether there are really 250,000 workers who earned at least $3,000 last year and live in households with a net income below $70,000 — as required to qualify for the payment.

"When you start eliminating seniors and people on disability and social assistance, then that number shrinks and shrinks," she said. "So he won't be paying out as much money as he has been touting the program to be worth."

The payments were first announced by Higgs in his state of the province speech last month. Holt said the criticism began the moment people understood there would be an "onerous" application process. Applicants need to provide a copy of their Canada Revenue Agency proof of income statement and that of their spouse or common-law partner, if applicable. First Nations members who choose to include tax-exempt working income under the Indian Act can opt to submit a copy of their T90 form.

J.P. Lewis, a political science professor at the University of New Brunswick, Saint John, agreed that one of the reasons for the blowback is the long application process to get the benefit. Applications opened Tuesday, and people can expect cheques in the mail six to eight weeks after applying.

Holt noted that the government had to hire 40 people to process the applications and distribute the benefits.

"We should have a modern process of delivering aid to people in ways that are simple and straightforward. Not these hoops and barriers that are designed to weed people out."

Lewis said people are used to having money deposited in their bank accounts, such as with tax credits or other federal programs.

"There could be individuals in a position where they need the money as soon as possible," he said. "So if it's seen as a relief program, but it's difficult to access, then that becomes a problem for the government."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2024.

Hina Alam, The Canadian Press