27 April 2010

Where the money goes – 15 years later

Just to put the Strategic Social Plan (1995) in a bit of context, you should realise that health care spending as a share of the provincial budget has increased dramatically in the past 15 years while other sectors have stayed the same or decreased.

The change is actually quite dramatic – 10 percentage points – from 265 in 1995 to reportedly 36.8% in 2010.  In dollars, spending on health care has tripled in the province since 1995 and the health share of the budget going from $933 million to $2.7 billion in a decade and a half.

This chart compares the 1995 figures from the Estimates with the recently tabled budget. It corresponds to a chart (Figure 2) from the 1995 Strategic Social Plan consultation paper. The light blue line represents the 1995 budget while the purple-blue line is the current budget estimate.

SSP Update chart The province’s business development and economic diversification efforts – ITT then and INTRD and Business today – take less of a share of the budget now.  That’s despite government claims that it has a plan to expand the economy and that the plan is in place.

Mind you, the amounts spent have increased.  For example, the cost of operating the departments has gone from about $50 million for the Industry, Trade and technology department to about $66 million spread over Business and Innovation, Trade and Rural Development today. 

The amount available for business investment is also up:  $18 million then compared to $29 million. Even then, though, the province’s business department -  the vehicle through which Danny Williams was once supposed to personally reinvigorate the provincial economy – actually doesn’t do very much with the cash in the budget.  Sure there are plenty of free gifts – like Rolls Royce – or the apparently endless supply of cash for inflatable shelters. 

But as the Telegram discovered two years ago, the provincial government spent nothing at all of the $30 million budgeted for business development in 2007. And earlier this year the Telegram confirmed that in the past three years, less than one third of the $90 budgeted for business attraction was ever spent.

Spending on education is down as a share of the overall budget, even though the amount spent is up from $763 million to $1.2 billion.

Interestingly, the most dramatic decline has been in what the budget estimates call Consolidated Fund Services.  Basically CFS covers all those expenditures that it takes to pay the interest on the public debt, maybe retire whatever tiny portion comes due each year, cover bank charges and  that sort of thing.

As a share of the budget, CFS has gone from 17% to 6.6%.  In dollars we are talking $403 million this year to service the public debt and another $87 million to cover employee retirement plans.  Fifteen years ago, the figures were $544 million and $60 million respectively.

Some bright bunny out there is likely hopping up and down thinking that the big improvement there is due to the actions of the current administration in paying off debt. 

Some bright bunny like innovation minister Shawn Skinner, speaking in the budget debate last week:

Our net debt, that big yolk around our necks that everybody talks about, that big millstone that drags everybody down which was about $12 billion - that is billion with a ‘b’ - when this government took office is now down by $3.9 billion to just under $8 billion. We have gone from a twelve-billion-dollar debt down to an eight-billion-dollar debt in six short years. Now, that is good economic policy I would suggest to you, Mr. Speaker. That is good fiscal policy and that is something that the people of this Province understand and appreciate. I do not have the figures right in front of me …

Well, not exactly.

The taxpayers of Newfoundland and Labrador actually have greater liabilities now than they did in 1995. 

What Skinner mentioned was net debt – liabilities less any assets – and that figure has actually gone back up in the past year.  Why?  Well because the provincial government had to dip into its cash reserves to avoid borrowing money from the banks to cover the $500 million they were short last year.  It’s also a couple of billion or so beyond what it was in the bad old days of the mid-1990s when the provincial government had no where near as much cash flowing in as it does today.

There’s no real point in going into the debt charade Skinner and his colleagues have been foisting the past few years. Regular readers of these scribbles are well-used to the argument.

What we really have to look at are the things that make the cost of carrying that debt lower today than in 1995. 

For one thing, interest rates are much lower than they were when some of that debt was incurred in the 1980s.  As old debt at high interest rates has matured, successive administrations simply rolled it over at much lower rates.  In that respect, the current crowd are doing exactly what the former crowd used to do. It’s a perfectly sensible thing to do when you don’t have the cash to pay debt off.

For another thing, the debt today is pretty much all in Canadian currency.  In the 1990s, chunks of the debt  - upwards of a third of it - were in American dollars and Japanese yen.  The weak Canadian dollar over the years meant that the taxpayers shelled out bundles in order to pay interest in higher valued currency.  Starting in the Wells administration, the provincial government started rolling over that foreign debt and borrowing Canadian.  That has saved the taxpayers hundreds of millions over the years.

For a third thing, the direct provincial debt  - the money the provincial government itself owes – has been dropping again from the high incurred during the Williams administration. Yes, that’s right for all the pitcher plants clogging the local media Internet sites thinking other. 

The direct public debt actually hit its peak of almost $7.0 billion under the current crew.  In fact,  the guy the pitcher plants and Fan Clubbers love to hate – Roger Grimes – left office in 2003 with the provincial government direct debt lower than the direct debt under Danny Williams today:  Grimes = $6.5915  billion versus Williams 2010 = $6.6468 billion.