16 June 2011

Strengthening the Treasury

Consider the simple reality.

The current provincial administration has more money – without considering federal transfers – than any other government in the province’s history.

Most of the government’s money comes from oil.

Oil prices are at persistent record high levels.

There are fewer people in the province than in 30 years.

Yet the provincial government is going to be running record deficits for the next five years.

And if Wade Locke’s analysis is only partially true, the provincial government will run record deficits virtually every year for the next decade and more and build debt to unprecedented, unthinkable levels.

That’s all without factoring in the Muskrat Falls mega-debt project.

We got into this state because successive provincial administrations believed in overspending today and ignoring tomorrow.  Over the past seven years in particular, the scale of fundamental mismanagement has been breathtaking. Danny Williams and his associates haven’t done anything others haven’t done before. It’s just been astonishing that they have followed a reckless course despite all the experience in this province and elsewhere that warned against it.

To appreciate just how well people in this province understood what needed to be done compare the recently Alberta expert panel’s economic strategy with the the 1992 Strategic Economic Plan developed over the course of two and a half years of widespread consultation.  Allow for the difference in the two provinces and it is remarkable how similar the language is.  Both talk about the need to develop infrastructure, broaden the economic base, promote entrepreneurship and soundly manage provincial spending.

We’ll get to the economic policies in another post in this series.  For now let’s toss out some ideas that the provincial should implement in order to make sure the public treasury is definitely managed prudently to provide a prosperous and secure future.

There are at least three basic principles that underpin these ideas:

First, recognise that the role of the provincial government is to create a climate in which personal and collective innovation in the private sector can create economically and environmentally sustainable jobs.  Government just isn’t good at it and decades of experience in Newfoundland and Labrador shows it is a bad idea for government to become as heavily involved in the economy as it has become in the past seven years.

Second, recognise that while government spending can play an important role in balancing the ups and downs of the economic cycle, it is a very bad idea to make people dependent on public spending for their primary economic activity.  It didn’t work in the Soviet Union and it won’t work here.

Third, non-renewable resources won’t last forever.  As such, the government must – as a moral obligation to the people it serves – adopt strict policies that maximise the long term benefit from resource revenues.

Now the ideas:

  1. Balance the province’s books every year. Mandate that all publicly owned entities follow the same policies.
  2. Spend percentages of non-renewable resource revenues in one of four waysPut a percentage toward an annual spending increase but limit annual spending increases to the average rate of inflation for the previous three years.  If the Conservatives had merely increased annual spending increases to five percent – instead of 10% and more – they could still have stimulated the economy when they needed to,  built needed infrastructure and had provided for a steady and reliable growth despite the recession plus they would have avoided the looming debt and very real deficit problem. We’ll get to public sector issues – including wages - in another post.
  3. Put another percentage into annual capital works spending that is based on a five year plan of maintenance and new construction.
  4. Put another percentage into real debt reduction.   All the current administration has done so far is pay off any debt that came due anyway.  Some of that was already covered by money put aside in other years in something called sinking funds.  The current crowd haven’t made a meaningful cut to what the provincial government owes in total. That must change.
  5. Put a fourth percentage of non-renewable revenues into a sovereign wealth fund as they have done in Norway.   Invested properly, this fund can provide new income for the provincial government every year long after the last barrel of oil is gone from the ground.
  6. If non-renewable revenues skyrocket in any year, commit to apply the bonus to debt reduction and to the investment fund.
  7. Review program spending every five years to make sure that programs meet a real need and are run as efficiently and as effectively as possible.  Scrap programs that are no longer relevant or that have outlived their usefulness.  At the same time…
  8. Introduce new programs only if they can be funded within existing spending levels or if they can be financed with new money outside government.
  9. Adopt the most demanding and transparent public audit and reporting policies in the world.  End the current misleading practice of reporting the public accounts on both a cash and accrual basis without explaining the difference to people.  The people deserve to know exactly how the government is handling their money.
  10. Work with the federal government to eliminate duplication of services and increase co-operation as with economic development (e.g ACOA and ENL) and taxation (e.g. HST).

- srbp -