Hunter braces for budget

THE Hunter is braced for public service job losses and multimillion-dollar cuts to state-funded programs in today’s state budget as Treasurer Mike Baird tries to rein in NSW’s purse strings.

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While the Newcastle Herald has confirmed the budget will contain a $30million boost to Hunter Water’s capital works program, the Treasurer has signalled the region will not escape the fiscal chainsaw.

Mr Baird acknowledged the cuts would not be popular, but said NSW was living within its means ‘‘just like businesses and households across the state are doing’’.

‘‘We’re bracing ourselves for difficult times, and we’ve taken responsible decisions that this state needs,’’ he said, when asked if he expected industrial action in response to the 10,000 jobs cuts – aimed at saving $2.2billion over four years.

Despite our coal industry providing most of the state’s royalty earnings, budget funding for big-ticket items appears to have been shelved.

In last year’s budget, the government said it received $1.24billion in royalties – 95per cent from coal – against a budgeted $1.77billion. The government expects to earn the same amount in the year to June 30, but falling coal prices are expected to erode that figure.

Premier Barry O’Farrell has defended the impact of today’s budget, saying the state is being ‘‘responsible’’ in tough economic times.

Money would be set aside for projects prioritised by Infrastructure NSW.

There will be more money for roads, rail and hospitals, with 12per cent increase in funding this financial year.

Hunter MPs want funding on a range of projects, but Newcastle MP Tim Owen said it was to be seen if the two big projects he backed – the University of Newcastle’s inner-city campus expansion and Newcastle rail line decision – would be part of the budget.

Charlestown MP Andrew Cornwell is hoping for Glendale interchange funding and a $2.5million Cardiff mainstreet program.

Speculation also emerged yesterday that Newcastle Port Corporation was being eyed for potential privatisation.

A spokesman for Ports Minister Duncan Gay played down the suggestion of a Newcastle privatisation, but the government was preparing to privatise Port Botany.

Additionally, a 600-page report by former Treasury secretary Michael Lambert recommends leasing out or selling a range of government businesses, including ports.

Newcastle Trades Hall Council secretary Gary Kennedy said the government should not privatise any of its Hunter operations.

Mr Kennedy said a 2010 Independent Pricing and Regulatory Tribunal audit of port, water and power agencies found Hunter Water and Newcastle Port Corporation had out-performed their peers in productivity and efficiency.

The Newcastle Alliance went on the attack yesterday, with regional director Andrew Fletcher accusing the government of failing to honour election commitments.

No decision on the Newcastle rail line, a lack of urban renewal in the city, delays on a proposed regional planning strategy, and a broken promise to double the amount spent on Hunter tourism spearheaded its grievances.

Property Council Hunter chapter chairman Edward Crawford said the new regional planning strategy was paramount.

‘‘There is a real and growing sense of frustration in industry circles that Barry O’Farrell’s first term is slipping away and won’t bring any lasting or meaningful change to the Hunter,’’ he said.

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