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Updated: Thu, 20 Feb 2014 08:00:00 GMT | By CBC News, cbc.ca

Quebec government to table budget ahead of looming election



Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau speaks with the media following federal-provincial Finance ministers meetings, Monday December 16, 2013 in Chelsea, Que. The Quebec government sent a firm message to Ottawa on the eve of the latest federal budget: no more "ugly surprises" for Quebecers. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau speaks with the media following federal-provincial Finance ministers meetings, Monday December 16, 2013 in Chelsea, Que. The Quebec government sent a firm message to Ottawa on the eve of the latest federal budget: no more "ugly surprises" for Quebecers. Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press

Eighteen months after the minority Parti Québécois government unveiled its ambitious plan to balance the books by 2014-2015, the province's finance minister will unveil the new plan, likely pushing back that goal by another year. 

It's the latest move in what many expect to be the road to a provincial election in April. 

The budget will be tabled at 4 p.m., just before the national assembly is scheduled to recess for two weeks. It's in that time, before the opposition has time to respond in the legislature, that many expect the premier to call a snap election.

Recent voter intention polls have shown support for the PQ, some even pushing them into majority territory.

But the government's unwillingness to hike taxes and make dramatic spending cuts to balance the books has some critics and political opponents raising concerns about their ability to manage Quebec's struggling economy.

This is Marceau's second budget since the PQ took power in September 2012.

The last document, more detailed than the one expected today, projected a balanced budget by 2014-2015, an election promise made by the PQ during the 2012 campaign.

That plan will fall at least $1.75 billion short, according to government projections. And this year, projected to end $1.5 billion in the red, will be closer to $2.5 billion.

"Expenses are under control, but revenues are not meeting targets," Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau said following an economic update in November.

Marceau said a drop in consumer spending, low inflation, a sluggish housing market and lower than expected tax revenues all contributed to lower revenues this year.

Despite that shortfall, the government shook off calls for drastic tax hikes or program cuts to bring spending more in line with revenue. 

The PQ inherited a $1.6 billion deficit, left behind by the Liberals, when the government changed hands. 

The government now says the books will be balanced by the end of the 2015-2016 fiscal year. 

Quebec's interim auditor general, Michel Samson, said yesterday that would be a very optimistic goal. 

Samson's report on the November economic update says a balanced budget in that time frame isn't impossible, but it would be ambitious.

Quebec’s debt-to-GDP ratio is the highest in Canada, at 55 per cent. 

Last week, premier Pauline Marois announced the government would be investing $115 million in an oil extraction project on Anticosti Island that would generate $45 billion in revenue for the province over the next 30 years.

However, critics have expressed concern that the government is gambling with taxpayers' money, pointing out that the volume of oil available though the unusual extraction process and the associated costs are still relative unknowns.

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