19 April 2012

The Budget-Spending Disconnection #nlpoli

The provincial government announced on Wednesday that they will spend $2.0 million to fund new child care spaces across the province.

Through Budget 2012, the Provincial Government remains committed to providing affordable, accessible and quality child care services throughout Newfoundland and Labrador. Today, the Honourable Charlene Johnson, Minister of Child, Youth and Family Services, announced $2 million for the second year of the Family Child Care Initiative, one of several key investments to be included in Budget 2012 to support child care.

Sounds like good news and it is.

But this announcement is peculiar.

For one thing, we won’t get Budget 2012 until next week. Traditionally. that’s when you get budget announcements like this one. You’d get it after the finance minister delivers the budget speech. Sometimes you get announcements before-hand but those used to be rare.

Now what makes this announcement a wee bit more peculiar is that this news release and news conference was really about spending commitments continued from 2011. It’s really cash you would anticipate they would spend so getting it this year wouldn’t be a big deal.  There’s no sign they plan to spend more than originally announced, so if you look at this big production, you are left wondering why they bothered.

Quotas of happy news, someone is yelling from the cheap seats.  That’s likely part of it.  If you look at the list of news releases for the week, they issued four on Monday and three on Tuesday.  On Wednesday, there were seven, not counting the two notes sent to editors that there would be two spending announcements later in the day. They made four spending announcements on Wednesday, incidentally.

There’s no polling that we know of. There’s no major controversy at the moment so yeah, quotas of happy news would seem to be a likely explanation.

Let’s look at something else, though.  One local reporter tweeted on Wednesday questioning the announcement of funding already announced, in effect, last year. If they funded it last year “of course” there’d be funding in 2012.

He garnered a comment from the Premier’s communications director:

There are no 'of courses' when it comes to budgeting. Multiple variables at play-affordability being a primary one.

Can’t take anything for granted, even government priorities.  Many things can change from year to year.

Now puhleeze.  These guys have had more cash than any previous government in the province’s history.  They have more in cash in the bank today than most governments ever had in any given year.  In fact, they might even have more than they did in 2003.

These guys have billions in cash earning interest while they wait to spend it on Muskrat Falls. A fraction of the interest on that $4.0 billion or so would cover way more than the chump change for this child care program. Affordability was never an issue in this case.  There were no variables at play at all.

As for the rest of it what the Premier’s comms director seems to be saying is simply unbelievable.  Not a good spot for a communications person to be in, mind you, but there it is.

But while she seemed to making a very general statement, those words  - the many variables – sounds rather like something else.  And there seems to be more to this release and others of its type than just quotas of happy news.  One of the bigger things we are seeing in this child care announcement is the growing disconnection between government communications and government operations.

It’s functionally the same as all those other announcements they make for projects that don’t actually happen until months or years later.  These days, the government budget speech is less about government’s spending program for the year than it is about the show for the news.

Not so very long ago, the budget itself was part of an annual process that had a great deal to do with keeping a very keen eye on spending.  By the early fall, departments were already talking to cabinet’s most powerful committee – Treasury Board – to find out the gross spending limits for the next year. 

As the weeks and months of the fall passed, Treasury Board would sharpen their focus line by line until you basically could get the budget done by February or so.  That allowed the government to put the budget in the House by March and get it approved before the new fiscal year started on April 1.

You could set your watch by it, the process was so well timed.  And you could map your year for spending and accomplishment by it.  Treasury Board could tell you within fractions of a percentage point how much cash they would have and how much they would spend.

Some time after 2003, that all went to crap.  At first, it looked like maybe Loyola Sullivan was just copying the Paul Martin formula for success: tell them the worst case predictions, no matter how implausible.  When things turn out better, you look like a genius.

The serial government always seemed to have trouble doing more than one thing at a time.  By early 2009, though, the “stimulus” announcements bundled the examples into a convenient pile for anyone interested in looking.  Later that year, Paul Oram started a huge political controversy by making budget announcements in run up to polling month.

No one announces budget cuts in August.


What the Oram-initiated debacle made plain was the extent to which things inside the upper reaches of government had grown increasingly nebulous as time went by.  Some time after 2003, the usual seasonal markers people inside government could use to keep things on track - start and end of the fiscal year, for example  – just disappeared.  Rather than forecasting actual government activity, the budget was just a general statement of intentions that might or might not turn out to be true.

There were no longer any “of courses” for government.

Just think about that.  The Premier’s communications director may have meant something else in her tweet but this alternative interpretation would explain an awful lot about a government that seems to have a chronic problem with getting stuff done on time and on budget.