Quebec to table possible pre-election budget

Quebec Finance Minister Raymond Bachand holds a copy of the budget plan during a photo opportunity Monday, March 19, 2012 at his office in Quebec City. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jacques Boissinot

QUEBEC - The Charest government is about to table this year's Quebec budget — which could be the last before a provincial election.

The budget, to be released this afternoon in Quebec City, is expected to stay the course and project a return to a surplus in 2013-14 as previously planned.

But taxpayers shouldn't expect too many big-ticket spending items or tax cuts, given the province's heavy debt level.

Finance Minister Raymond Bachand hinted at that spending discipline yesterday. Instead of buying new shoes as finance ministers usually do for budget day, he bought new laces; last year, he re-soled his shoes.

Bachand says he'll buy new shoes for budget day when the province's books are balanced.

In the meantime, he says today's 2012-13 budget will be aimed at wealth creation through the exploitation of the province's abundant resources.

It just so happens that northern resource development is expected to be a key theme of the next provincial election; the issue will pit Premier Jean Charest's so-called Plan Nord against an opposition, specifically the Parti Quebecois, which urges higher resource royalties and a more cautious approach to development.

The Liberal government was re-elected in late 2008, and must call an election sometime between this spring and the end of 2013.

Charest could be held back by poor poll numbers. His Liberals are deeply unpopular with francophone voters, who decide the lion's share of ridings in the province.

However, if he waits too long, an election could happen in the middle of a high-profile corruption inquiry — one that is expected to place some of his party organizers on the hot seat.