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Couillard pushes plan to wipe out deficit by 2016

Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard makes a speech during a ceremony which commemorated and honoured the soldiers who participated in the war in Afghanistan and included many of the family members of the 158 soldiers who died in the 12-year conflict, Friday May 9, 2014 at CFB Valcartier.

CLEMENT ALLARD/THE CANADIAN PRESS

There will be no relief for Quebec taxpayers until the province has eliminated its deficit in two years, Premier Philippe Couillard says.

The Liberal government, which is struggling to balance spending cuts with lower-than-anticipated revenues, will table a budget next month that will define its plan to review programs and outline the extent of cuts.

"Our fundamental objective is to balance the budget. We must balance the budget. …What we have chosen to do is to do it over two years," Mr. Couillard said at a news conference after a caucus meeting to prepare for next week's opening session of the National Assembly. Only when the province has eliminated the deficit in 2016 will the government abolish the health tax and consider other tax cuts, he added.

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Coalition Avenir Quebec Leader François Legault warned the government that unless it gives money back to consumers, the Quebec economy will continue to decline.

"The economic situation is not good in Quebec. … If we want to really have an impact on the economy, we have to cut taxes. …There is no way we can stimulate the economy without giving more money to the middle class," Mr. Legault said.

Quebec's finances are so bleak that Mr. Couillard had to reject Prime Minister Stephen Harper's proposal to give the province ownership of federal bridges in Montreal. On Thursday, Mr. Harper opened the door to selling Quebec the three federally owned Montreal bridges across the St. Lawrence River – the Jacques-Cartier, the Champlain and part of the Mercier. Ottawa recently announced the construction of a new multibillion-dollar project to replace the Champlain Bridge.

"Given the current state of public finances, we can't in the short term take on this kind of spending," Mr. Couillard said, adding the priority for Ottawa is to fix and replace the decaying Champlain Bridge before discussing ownership. "I'm not pushing it off the table. … I don't want this to take us away from the target, which is to fix the bridge, make people drive on it safely."

As the Liberals met to discuss the government's agenda, they were visibly embarrassed by the testimony of their colleague Julie Boulet at the Charbonneau Commission on corruption.

Ms. Boulet, who held several portfolios in the Charest government, told the inquiry she did not know at that time that ministers were required to collect $100,000 in donations a year for the Quebec Liberal Party. Yet several of her former cabinet colleagues, including Mr. Couillard, who was then health minister, said in response this week that they knew about the target. Commission officials produced documents showing Ms. Boulet collected the required $100,000 several times and questioned her about potential favouritism in the awarding of government road building contracts. Ms. Boulet firmly denied having knowledge of any fundraising activities. She completed her testimony on Thursday.

Mr. Couillard said Ms. Boulet will "currently" remain a member of the Liberal caucus, adding that he will make a decision on her future after the commission's report comes out. "Ms. Boulet still has our confidence. But there will be a report by the commission. Let's wait and see," he said.

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About the Author
Quebec City political correspondent

Rhéal Séguin is a journalist and political scientist. Born and educated in southern Ontario, he completed his undergraduate degree in political science at York University and a master's degree in political science at the Université du Québec à Montréal.Rhéal has practised journalism since 1978, first with Radio-Canada in radio and television and then with CBC Radio. More

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