n Feb. 2 Finance Minister Cathy Bennett was having a rough evening. Bennett was at a pre-budget consultation at the Knights of Columbus hall on St. Clare Avenue in St. John’s — three other consultations were scheduled to be held simultaneously in Grand Falls-Windsor, Clarenville and St. Anthony. There will be 11 sessions across the province.
The consultations have become an annual tradition, and around 100 people gave their time and energy to show up at the St. John’s event, with several berating the finance minister for past government decisions on taxes and fees, and others suggesting where cuts should be made.
You’d think at least some of the suggestions could be a help: after all, the premier and Bennett have talked about the need to find $244 million in spending cuts for this year. Bennett said as part of her presentation that there wouldn’t be tax increases this year — an indication of something we should all be aware of from the very beginning.
And that’s that the budget you think you are being consulted on is pretty much already done — so don’t expect your words to carry much weight.
The budgetary process is pretty much the same every year: in November, or sometimes as late as December, the government sets its fiscal priorities for the upcoming budget year, and sends that information out to departments who begin the line-by-line work of setting the upcoming budget. The broad decisions are usually made by January.
By the time February comes along, all of the macro budgetary changes are set and, in the case of cutbacks, the departments are looking at the individual positions that will be affected, and how those cuts will spiral out into other positions. Members of the House of Assembly might still make specific cases for issues in their districts, and cabinet ministers stickhandle programs they want to defend or keep.
But traditionally, right now, around the beginning of February, is the time when ministers and their senior bureaucrats are called to meet the finance minister, senior staff and often the premier to defend their final departmental budget submissions.
It doesn’t mean there won’t be changes after this point; there can be — and have been — changes right up until practically the day the budget is delivered. But those are outliers. The writing is on the wall, and more importantly, on the page for pretty much all of the upcoming budget.
You’re being asked for input — at a date so late that it would be hard to even use.
Feel free to give your suggestions on what budgetary direction the province should take, even though, in all likelihood, those decisions have already been made.
We have a cost-saving idea for the government — albeit one that won’t save tons of money: stop this charade, unless you really want advice.