05 February 2016

Old whine still sour #nlpoli

"I'm concerned that we have an aging asset,”  natural resources minister Siobhan Coady told CBC in explaining the most recent break downs at the Holyrood generating station.

About two years ago, in the midst of darknl,  then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale said pretty much the same thing:  “We've talked incessantly, it seems to me, over the last number of years about the aging facility in Holyrood and the fact that that facility needed to be replaced.”  Before that, Nalcor and its supporters used “aging infrastructure” and the inevitable climb of oil prices as the excuse to build the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls project.

The old whine in new skins isn't any sweeter in the ear whether it is coming from Coady or Dunderdale.

Indeed, what’s most disturbing about Siobhan Coady's media interview is that in the two years since darknl we have learned that the lines someone fed Coady are not true.

Yet someone still fed Coady the false lines and Coady used them.

04 February 2016

Get the message: get a grip #nlpoli

Two former Premiers sent a very pointed message to Premier Dwight Ball this week about the way Ball has been handling the provincial government’s massive deficit problem.

Brian Tobin was in St. John’s to present a cheque on behalf of the Bank of Montreal to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great War. Tobin said people need to understood that the current cabinet felt a problem far worse than any other in the province’s history.  people need to pull together, but for Ball personally, Tobin said that while it was best to be consistent and right, if you had to pick between the two, it was better to be right.  “Do the right thing,”  said Tobin.

Grimes did media interviews on Wednesday in addition to offering a guest post at SRBP.  He told Ball that it was important to put everything on the table.  Grimes specifically cited Muskrat Falls, with the billions in borrowing to finish the project, as well as energy marketing and offshore oil equity stakes.

03 February 2016

Fiscal Stabilization Program #nlpoli

On the one hand, it’s great to live in a country that has a program to let the federal government shunt money to provincial governments that run into financial difficulties.

On the other hand, it’s disappointing that the current provincial administration is talking up the prospect of getting more hand-outs from Ottawa rather than bringing its spending in line with its revenues.

“The Fiscal Stabilization Program, introduced in 1967, compensates provinces if their revenues fall substantially from one year to the next due to changes in economic circumstances. …  A province is eligible for stabilization payments if economic conditions cause its revenues to decline in excess of five per cent in one year. The maximum amount payable is $60 per resident.”

Unless the federal government changes the maximum payable, we are talking about a mere $31 or $32 million for Newfoundland and Labrador.

The legal authority for the Fiscal Stabilization Program is in the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act.  The amount of money a province can receive comes from a formula in the Act that compares one year’s provincial revenue with that of the year before. The formula distinguishes between resource revenue and non-resource revenue.

The Act sets a limit on the maximum amount available to a provincial government.  The limit is $60 per person in the province according to the most recent sentence.  If the formula gives a larger amount than the $60 per capita,  a provincial government can receive the full amount.  Anything beyond the $60 per person maximum would be considered a loan.

A Quebec government summary says that no “province received benefits under this program until 1981-1982, when British Columbia received benefits. Québec qualified for a payment twice in the early 1990s. However, since the “minimum 5% decline” threshold was restored in 1995-1996 (after having been abandoned in 1972), no province has received compensation.”


From a decade of prosperity to $2 billion deficits: What happened?

By Roger Grimes

Reflecting upon becoming the eighth Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador 15 years ago this month, I found myself chatting with a few friends and associates about where the province found itself fiscally at that time, what happened during the next decade, and where we find ourselves today.

During my tenure as Premier, we were a persistent “have not” province with a deficit problem of roughly ten percent. We ran annual deficits of roughly $500 million on a total budget of $4.5 billion. Now, after a decade of unparalleled prosperity and “have” status within the Equalization system, we find ourselves with a twenty-five percent deficit problem comprised of a $2 billion deficit on an $8 billion total annual budget.

02 February 2016

Using data aggressively #nlpoli

These days campaigns are about collecting information on voters and using the data.

The Ted Cruz campaign has been especially aggressive in  Iowa with a mailer that highlights the poor record of some voters of participating in caucuses.

The thing came in a brown envelope (above) and consisted of  single sheet of yellow paper (below) marked like a ballot that showed a score and percentage grade for voters named on the sheet. 

These folks don’t typically turn out to vote, so Cruz was trying to goad them into participating. Voting records are public in some American states so campaigns can tell who voted and who didn't.  Your neighbours.

You can tell if it worked by the results from Monday’s caucuses.


01 February 2016

Newfoundland government finance, 1832 to 1949 #nlpoli

Before Newfoundlanders stopped governing themselves in the early winter of 1934, they’d run a sometimes arduous course.

Newfoundland gained a limited form of self-government in 1832 and in 1855 gained Responsible Government.  That gave control of  virtually everything except defence and foreign policy to a cabinet made up of members of the elected assembly and the appointed upper chamber of the legislature. 

By the 1880s,  the government wanted to expand the economy beyond the fishery.  They started a railway project to open up the interior of the island and the western coast, much the same way that the Americans and Canadians had used the latest technology – the railway – to expand to their west.

31 January 2016

Junkyard wars

Syrian rebels have been using modern technology in the simplest of ways in their war against the Assad regime in Syria.

In the picture at left,  a rebel crew are shown using an angle meter app for the iPad to check the alignment of a mortar barrel before an attack.

According to a story in the Daily Mail last September,  the photo shows members of the 'Ansar Dimachk' Brigade, which operates under the Free Syrian Army, using a tablet "to help fire a homemade mortar towards a battlefront in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus."

The rebels have also been using iPads for other purposes as well, as the following video shows.


30 January 2016

AG reports on suspected frauds in FY 2014 #nlpoli

In his most recent report, Auditor General Terry Paddon disclosed alleged frauds identified during his review of the provincial government's accounts:
  • The finance department's Professional Services and Internal Audit Division discovered a potential fraud of $42,000, less about 10% that had been repaid, that occurred in the the division's examination of the Provincial Courts bank reconciliation processes. The Department of Justice and Public Safety referred this matter to the police for investigation. 
  • The same division reported a suspected fraud in the Department of Transportation and Works' depot involving thefts of automotive fuel and supplies as well as inappropriate use of employee resources. "It was concluded by the Division that due to the poor state of records and lack of effective internal controls at the depot, it was not possible to prove that any fraud had occurred. No further action was taken."
  • During a routine review of travel claims, the Department of Justice and Public Safety identified irregularities that totalled approximately $1,300. The Department forwarded the matter to the police for investigation. 
  • The Department of Child, Youth and Family Services reported that A foster parent may have committed fraud by submitting claims for funding for overnight babysitting when no babysitting services were provided. CYFS turned the matter over to the police and the individual is no longer a foster parent. 
  • The Department of Advanced Education and Skills identified an alleged forgery of documentation submitted for reimbursement of approximately $30,000 for medical transportation costs and possible false documentation to support $27,000 in client rental payments.  Both cases are with the police.
  • The Forestry and Agrifoods Agency identified an alleged misappropriation of funds by an employee of the agency that involved deliberately delaying the submission of cash remittances and personally using the funds during the intervening period.   The agency recovered the $21,000 involved,  terminated the employee but did not report the matter to the police.  
  • Nalcor Energy identified a theft of petty cash of $360.  Nalcor revised its procedures for handling petty cash.
  • The Provincial Information and Library Resources Board informed the AG of a fraud against the board involving a cheque that had apparently be altered.  The board subsequently recovered the $7,100 from its bank but did not report the matter to the police. 
  • The Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation identified an instance of improper retention of public money in which two employees were using their assigned corporate procurement cards to make purchases for personal use. Overall, the improper transactions amounted to $5,156 ($4,698 related to one employee and $458 to another). The $5,156 has been recovered from both employees and one employee has resigned. The other remains an employee of the Corporation. The Corporation has not referred the matter to the police. 


29 January 2016

S and P lowers NL rating, cites uncertainty of fiscal policy #nlpoli

Standard and Poor's said on Friday that the company had lowered its credit rating for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro from A+ to A with a negative outlook.

In a news release, the company said the "negative outlook reflects our view of the uncertainty of the magnitude of the government's expected fiscal policy response to lowered offshore royalties and projected operating and after-capital deficits."

S and P's base-case forecast for 2014 to 2018 gives the government an "average operating deficit of about 7% of adjusted operating revenue and average after-capital deficits of close to 19%
of total adjusted revenues."  S and P calls this weak.  The company also said that it considers the government's "budgetary performance is subject to considerable volatility, given its high reliance on resource royalties...."

The company said it considers both the province's debt burden and contingent liabilities level to be high.  The company cited unfunded pension liability and the risk associated with Nalcor and Muskrat Falls as key issues in these areas.  "We believe the province has an incentive to provide extraordinary government support to Nalcor in the event of financial stress." Standard and Poor's also considered the government's luiqidity level to be low.

S and P  noted the strong federal-provincial financial relationship,  the provincial government's financial management history,  and strong budget flexibility as factor's working in the provincial government's favour.   "We believe that the province's economic and fiscal situation will make public acceptance of fiscal measures, such as tax increases and spending reductions, much more acceptable despite their unpopularity."  

The negative outlook reflects the uncertainty of the magnitude of the government's expected fiscal policy response to lowered offshore royalties and projected operating and after-capital deficits. We could revise the outlook to stable if the newly elected government takes the fiscal measures necessary to establish an improving trend in its budgetary performance beyond fiscal 2017, and develops a credible plan to restore budgetary balance in the medium term. Conversely, we could take a negative rating action should the province's budgetary performance show signs of weakening further beyond what we expect for fiscal 2017, particularly if projected after-capital deficits remain near 23% of consolidated operating revenues or the tax-supported debt burden reaches 270% of projected consolidated operating revenues [currently 100%].




28 January 2016

Moody's warns NL government on finances #nlpoli

Moody's Investor Services is the second rating agency to give the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador a negative trending  in light of the government's financial problems.

In a release, Moody's said that the "negative outlook for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador reflects the rising risk that the province's fiscal position will deteriorate further than previously expected in an environment of protracted low oil prices and reduced economic activity. Without corrective fiscal action, this will lead to significant deficits, resulting in rapid debt accumulation across the medium-term."

Moody's expects oil to sell at US$33 a barrel in 2016 rising to US$38 a barrel in 2017 and US$43 a barrel in 2018.  The company expects that this will lead to significant deficits, with the deficit for the current fiscal year expected to reach 32% of revenue.  

"The outlook could be revised back to stable if the province introduces and implements a comprehensive fiscal plan that limits debt accumulation and debt service at levels in line with similarly rated peers, or exceeds these levels for a short period only."

Although the company describes the provincial debt level as low compared to its rating peers,  the company cautioned that "a lengthy period of consolidated deficits, along with a long-term expectation of recording debt in excess of 200% of revenues ... could result in negative pressures on the rating."

Gross debt is already more than 200% larger than anticipated revenues and net debt is almost guaranteed to hit or exceed that trigger, if the company includes consideration of the financial implications of Muskrat Falls.  


27 January 2016

Revelation: Labrador hydro edition #nlpoli #cdnpoli

“I wonder how I would feel if a province or a region in another province prevented Hydro-Québec from building its transmission line. I would feel exactly like the people in the West do now. I understand them.”  

Quebec City mayor Regis Lebeaume had a revelation.


Let's have a chat about another transmission line, shall we?


Jerry Earle won't retweet this post #nlpoli

Apparently the surest way to piss off a couple of university academics a.k.a the NDP policy brain-trust is to point out how their take on the government’s financial crisis is out to lunch.

Short recap:  Math prof and Indy columnist Tom Baird got hold of an access to information response that explained the calculations behind a comment by cabinet minister Susan Sullivan on Twitter in March 2015:
In 2014 NL taxpayers will pay $744 million less as a result of tax deductions – affordable?
The ATIP request asked for a breakdown of that $744 million figure. Tom left off the cover page from the response when he posted a link to it in his Independent column in 2015.

“Tax cuts made during the Williams-Dunderdale era now cost the government $744 million in revenue each year,” Baird wrote, “ according to a recently released document from the Department of Finance obtained through an access to information request. This accounts for more than two-thirds of last year’s $1.1 billion budget deficit.”

That just doesn’t look right

26 January 2016

Revenue problem #nlpoli

Jon Parsons  has an interesting take on the provincial government's financial mess.  It’s worth taking a few minutes to go through it.  Follow some of the links he offers as well.  Altogether they form what you might call a different perspective on things:
 The current deficit and debt…are the result of decisions that were made by a small number of people, and also because of the whims of the global trade in oil.
The key element of Parsons’ argument is that we are not dealing with a spending problem but a revenue problem.  We don’t bring in enough money largely because local elites have given away gigantic benefits to the local rich and to multi-national corporations.

The idea we have a revenue problem isn’t new and it certainly isn’t unconventional.  The province’s three political parties and the public sector unions all basically say the same thing or have made the same claim over the past year.

25 January 2016

Turmoil tamed #nlpoli

Few people would be brave enough to start out a book on politics in  Newfoundland and Labrador with the words “Paul Lane.”

Fewer still could bring it off successfully.

Telegram political reporter James McLeod does both and more in a deftly written and insightful new book, Turmoil, as usual.

22 January 2016

DBRS downgrades government rating #nlpoli

DBRS issued a revised rating for the provincial government on Thursday.  It remains "A" but a change to trending from "stable" to "negative" for long-term debt.  DBRS' short-term debt rating remains R-1 (Low) with a stable outlook.

In a news release, "DBRS has also confirmed the Guaranteed Long-Term Debt ratings of Newfoundland and Labrador Municipal Financing Corporation and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro at “A” and has changed the trends to Negative from Stable."
"...DBRS believes that the Province’s ability to implement a fiscal response sufficient to slow the deterioration in the credit profile is limited. Without a material improvement in the fiscal and debt outlook supported by a credible multi-year fiscal plan, a one-notch downgrade is likely."

21 January 2016

A chasm they can't ignore #nlpoli

That didn’t take long.

The fundamental strategic political problem Dwight Ball and his senior advisors have been busily building since last year exploded on Wednesday with the leak of a treasury board directive to departments, agencies, boards, and Crown corporations.

Ball has been promising that he would deal with the provincial government’s mess without layoffs.  As recently as last week Ball said that attrition – job vacancies due to retirements – were the only way he’d consider job reductions in the public service.

Yet,  the ministers of the treasury board have recently sent a note to departments, agencies, boards and Crown corporations asking them to come up with options to reduce spending by 30% over the next three years. There is no commitment that government will cut that much.  This is an exercise in generating options for the cabinet to consider.