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PQ government to table deficit budget as provincial election looms

QUEBEC - The Quebec government is expected to table a deficit budget today with a fiscal plan it had initially pegged to guide the struggling province back into the black.

The blueprint will also be presented at a critical time for the governing Parti Quebecois, which is widely expected to send the province to the polls in the coming weeks.

In its last budget, the minority PQ government had promised to balance the province's books by the current fiscal year.

But it later backed away from that prediction and is now expecting to post a shortfall of $2.5 billion for 2013-14, which ends this coming March 31.

The Marois government has also announced the 2014-15 budget will include a $1.7-billion deficit.

Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau has said the earlier zero-deficit projection is being delayed until 2015-16 primarily because of lower-than-expected revenues.

Marceau will present the budget amid widespread speculation the PQ will call an election in the coming weeks that would set a provincial vote for April.

Opinion polls have suggested the pro-independence PQ was within striking distance of a majority mandate.

Premier Pauline Marois has made a series of campaign-style announcements in recent weeks in an effort to silence critics who accuse her party of having a poor economic record.

The PQ's multimillion-dollar investments include cash for a new cement plant in the Gaspe region and an oil-exploration project on Quebec's remote Anticosti Island.

The latest PQ budget is being tabled a day after the province's interim auditor general presented a report saying the government's goal of climbing out of the red by 2015-16 is "to say the least, ambitious."

Michel Samson said Marceau has ruled out tax hikes and has only provided for two per cent increases in government spending in 2014-15 and 2015-16.

The return to financial equilibrium could come at the cost of spending cuts and increased fees, such as higher hydroelectricity rates.

Marceau responded Wednesday to Samson's report by saying the government was well aware of how challenging it will be to balance the budget in 2015-16.

He said the PQ has controlled government spending and he noted how the auditor general did not find errors in the economic statement.

"Our financial framework is therefore credible, solid and realistic," Marceau said in a statement.

This will be the second budget tabled by the PQ government, which was elected in September 2012.

With just a slim majority of seats in the legislature, the Marois government would need support from at least one opposition party for the budget to pass.

It's unclear, however, whether the national assembly will get the chance to vote on the budget before Marois calls an election.

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