A 'concrete budget': critics on all sides pan Quebec's plans to spend big on infrastructure
MONTREAL -- One of the biggest tickets in Quebec’s new budget is old-fashioned building projects—something the CAQ government had already put at the heart of pandemic recovery plan.
But the opposition slammed that economic logic on Thursday. Amid the mammoth budget, which carries a $12.3 billion deficit, they singled out its roads, transit and other building projects as their main problem.
"Pushing on the infrastructure lever will have negative repercussions, because the one industry that's doing well is construction," said Carlos Leitao, the Liberals' economy critic.
"If we accelerate construction, what you’re going to get is inflation," he said.
Whether looking at it in terms of climate, gender or regions, a lot of people seemed to have problems with the infrastructure spending.
Quebec Solidaire even called the budget "a concrete budget" because it involves so much cement, saying it would have been better timing to invest in heavily in the green economy.
"This pandemic has been hard on the economy, but it has not made climate change disappear," said the party’s Vincent Marissal.
HELPING THE PROVINCE BOUNCE BACK
Thursday’s budget has a total of $135 billion over 10 years for roads, buildings, transit and other infrastructure projects. That’s an increase of $4.5 billion over last year’s 10-year-plan.
It was already known that the province intended to spend heavily on building, and to do it fast. Late last year it passed the revamped Bill 66, a multitude of sped-up construction projects.
The province said today it expects to build 60 per cent of those $135 billion in projects in the next five years, and it argued it’ll help Quebec bounce back.
"These major investments will help increase the economy’s potential and create long-term wealth in addition to filling the space left in the construction market by private projects abandoned because of the pandemic," it wrote in its budget document.
As a post-pandemic stimulus, though, there’s just not much reason to believe it’ll work, argued the critics.
"If you look at the job numbers lost in the pandemic, it was mostly women in jobs filled by women," said Andre Fortin, another Liberal NMA.
"It's service sector, public service—and the government is relaunching a sector that’s already doing well, the construction sector."
INFRASTRUCTURE SPENDING LACKS SPECIFICS
The Parti Québécois agreed, saying it’s not in the population’s best interest, and also pointing out that much of this sped-up building will coincide with the last part of the CAQ's mandate, as it heads into re-election.
The specifics of what will get built are clear under Bill 66 but weren’t made easy to find in Thursday’s documents, leaving some wondering where the extra money is actually going, and if it’s well distributed across regions.
Infrastructure money is "clearly" a big part of the budget, "but the projects are not identified," said Michel Leblanc, CEO of Montreal’s Chamber of Commerce, after his first review of the documents.
"I cannot say whether there's money for the McGill project with the Royal Victoria Hospital infrastructures. There's no sign that the Palais des Congrès will receive the money that's needed to increase the capacity, and also there's no mentioning of the REM station at the Dorval airport."
In the Dorval case, it could be because a joint announcement will come with the federal government, "but I would have liked to see more details about projects that will move ahead that are, I would say, very structural for the Montreal economy," Leblanc said.
The group Équiterre called the budget a let-down overall, saying there wasn’t much in it for the climate, especially after last year’s unusually green plan.
In particular, Quebec is now “lagging behind” in transportation, said Andréanne Brazeau of Équiterre.
In fact, one of the new budget items, listed as climate, is actually at the service of the building projects: $67.9 million over five years to help speed up environmental assessment, which is only necessary because of the sped-up building timeline.
The money will go "to ensure compliance with environmental standards while accelerating the implementation of some infrastructure projects" in various ways.