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Quebec Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau to present budget on Feb. 20

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QUEBEC - The Quebec government will table its budget next Thursday, yet another step toward what many predict will be an inevitable election call in the days or weeks that follow.

The budget will come down on the eve of a scheduled two-week break at the provincial legislature.

One scenario has the Parti Quebecois calling an election within a week of the budget, with Quebecers going to the polls on March 31.

If the full two-week break stands, Premier Pauline Marois might call the election for April 14.

The PQ was elected with a minority government in 2012, but has risen steadily in the polls in recent months and now believes a majority could be within reach.

In recent weeks, the government has added to the election speculation by doling out funding for various projects.

On Friday, Marois would not discuss election plans, but did say attempts to negotiate a budget deal with the two opposition parties — the Liberals and the Coalition — have proven fruitless.

"The conditions proposed by the Coalition, for example, are impossible to meet," Marois told reporters in Montreal during a funding announcement.

"They're choosing austerity, we're choosing prosperity, it's not complicated. They want us to obtain a balanced budget now and that's impossible, considering the state of revenues."

The Coalition says the PQ budget must be a balanced one if it is to get his party's support.

"It's a question of equity for the next generation," Leader Francois Legault said.

"We can't continue, while we're the province with the largest debt, to keep adding to this debt. It doesn't make sense to pay the bills on our children's credit cards."

Marois said her plan is to continue to support the economy by creating jobs, thereby leading to a balanced budget.

Liberal Leader Philippe Couillard said he doesn't expect the legislature will sit long enough for the budget to get to a vote. In Montreal on Friday, he expressed serious doubts about the veracity of the government's numbers.

"It will probably not be credible figures," Couillard said. "We know already the government has been wrong on revenues, on expenses, on economic growth and on jobs.

"They will be wrong again but they will put a sugar-coating around it."

Finance Minister Nicolas Marceau did not speak publicly, but announced the end of pre-budget consultations that saw him meet with some 75 groups and receive 60 written submissions.

"The Quebec budget is an opportunity to take stock of the state of public finances and on government action to support the economy," he said in a statement.

The budget will come down on the same day as the Quebec auditor general's report into Marceau's economic update last November. The report will focus on the 2013-2014 fiscal year, whcih ends this March 31.

The PQ promised in the fall 2012 election campaign to post a balanced budget by March 2014. But a sluggish economy has led the government to revise that timetable to 2015-16.

Marois indicated at a party meeting last week the numbers from the November update remained unchanged. That would mean a $2.5-billion deficit this year and a $1.7-billion shortfall in 2014-15.

Recently, former premier Jacques Parizeau expressed concerns about Quebec's struggling economy.

The former economist cited two recent studies and wrote that Quebecers are spending more money than they can afford.

The 2014-2015 budget will be the PQ's second —the last one, also under Marceau, came in November 2012.

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