Quebeckers spared tax hike as government looks to election

QUEBEC (AP) — Quebec’s separatist government, trying to lay the groundwork for another referendum on secession, unveiled a budget Tuesday that moves toward erasing the deficit without raising personal income taxes.
The province expects to post a $1.1-billion ($774 million U.S.) deficit this year — down from $2.1 billion ($1.48 billion U.S.) last year — and is still on track to be deficit-free in 1999-2000.
In order to reach the 1998-99 deficit target, there will be about $1 billion ($700 million U.S.) in cuts to education, health, social services and municipalities.
The $41.8-billion budget ($29.4 billion U.S.) could be the last one before a provincial election, expected this fall or next spring. The budget could help the separatist Parti Quebecois return to power in an election that likely will pit charismatic Premier Lucien Bouchard against popular anti-separatist Jean Charest.
Bouchard has repeatedly said a balanced budget will give Quebeckers more freedom of choice in determining their future.
The government hopes balancing its books will allow it to cut taxes and lead to strong job growth in a province whose unemployment rate was 10.6 percent in February, about two percentage points higher than the national average.