To the credit of Minister Higgs, the Conservative government has released some details about the 1% spending cut that departments were asked to find, shaving about $40million off of this year's budget.
There is nothing wrong --at all-- with putting the call out for departments to look at everything they are doing and to find efficiencies. Many of the cuts where we have details are not at all controversial; things like not filling vacant positions, delaying information technology purchases, reducing conference attendance are all the things we expect managers to do, and our civil service generally manages well.
(Having been around the cabinet table, the one reality check I might offer here is that no one should pretend that this is new or even the result of the Finance Minister's edict. In fact, when you remember that this is in the context of an $8billion budget, managers are always making these adjustments, taking savings from unexpected vacancies or programs where the payouts are lower than projected. What has changed is that these things used to go back into social programs, and now they're simply being put back into government coffers. For example, the Bernard Lord government once had a year when due to one less pay period in the fiscal year, the Education Department saved over $8million. They let Education use the money to buy laptops for teachers. Social Development had many programs that came in under budget, after all, most budgets are based on a guess as to how many people will need a given program. Ditto with Justice and restoring some family mediation services.
Liberals tended to let the department keep that money, and that's how we funded new programs like expanded dental services or more infant care spaces or nursing home repairs. What the Alward 1% cut order changed wasn't that these efficiencies appeared, it is that they weren't spent on new social programs. That's not illegitimate, I just point it out to set the record straight that "efficiencies" of around $14million -and that's the amount that aren't program cuts- in a budget of this size exist every year. What changed is that they weren't used to solve social problems, which agree or disagree is a conservative approach.)
However, if you look closer, the volume of little tiny cuts hides the fact that, financially, the big chunks came out of Health, Education and Social Development. I expect there's a little spin here, after all, you can list each one-month staff vacancy borne by tiny secretariats individually, but they don't add up to as much as the $9million taken from school boards which are not described in any detail. (They repeat Minister Carr's order that they not affect classroom services, but they don't list what was actually cut. A bit of history, though....in 2009, DECs said that any cut over $2million would require a reduction in the number of teaching assistants.). The fact is that the big cuts are ones that reduce the support to teachers in the classroom, leave more people in poverty without repairs to their home, and cut drug coverage to some New Brunswickers. Those are the big cuts. If you doubt which departments took the hit, look at which ministers are in the budget cutting picture the government released.
Let's be clear -- when Tories raged against a deficit, they said cutting health and education would be a last resort. This list makes it clear that social program cuts were a first resort. If the government is already starting to cut these things in what is a very light round of cuts, then it suggests they didn't have a whole lot of other ideas.
Keeping that in mind, here are ten questions that should be asked about what we have just seen that I haven't heard much from the political and journalist classes yet (although the Twitter community has raised them)
Premier Alward, with respect, I would ask the following....
You have reduced the budget for family mediation services, claiming that referrals for mediation in family law cases are lower than expected. Given that you are cleaning that this is a reduction in the deficit, the year-over-year spending in New Brunswick, that would imply that this is an ongoing reduction (because if funding goes up next year, then it is not a deficit reducing-cut). If you are cutting the Justice Department's family mediation budget to match the current demand, does that mean that you believe there is enough use of mediation services in our family courts? If so, does that mean you reject the findings of the Family Law Task Force that said that more mediation will lead to better outcome for children whose parents split up?
In the 2010 election campaign, you stated that you would restore the Beginning Teacher Induction Program "essential". Yet in these cuts, you define the professional development of teachers and ongoing teacher training as a "non-classroom" expense. Is it the position of your government that professional development is, or is not, an investment that affects classroom learning? (And if only the Induction Program is good for classroom learning and not the areas you cut, on what basis are you making that distinction?)
You have cut repairs and upkeep budget for public housing for families living in poverty. Does this mean that you believe that current wait times for repairs to the homes of people living in poverty is acceptable, and what is the benchmark you are setting for how long our citizens should wait?
The largest single cut is a reduction of over $9million to school districts. Will you commit to ensuring that each DEC releases a list as detailed as this one, so that New Brunswickers can evaluate your claim that these are not classroom cuts?
The next largest are of cuts are in Health, yet many have not yet been detailed but are dependent upon consultations to occur on delisting health services and prescription drug coverage. Given that these are very serious decisions for New Brunswickers that count on funding for their health needs, will these consultations really be done by the end of the fiscal year as you claim (since your Finance Minister is claiming to have cut the deficit this year with the cuts). Will these consultations only involve doctors, or will patients also have a say in what health services you deem non-essential?
In the are of post-secondary education, programs assisting students with repayment of high student loans have been cut, citing that there has been lower demand for what is a new program. Does this mean that you do not anticipate more graduates with high debt loads seeking help from these new programs? If greater awareness of the program does lead to growth (which is usually the case with new application-based programs), will the cut be reversed or will there be restrictions put on who can apply?
A $2million cut has been identified in the energy efficiency grants given to low-income citizens. This is important, because it allows families who most need to lower power bills help doing that (and saves government money from home heating subsidies later). Yet the savings is done by "deferring" these grants - does that mean the money will be spent anyway, in the next fiscal year (which means this is not a savings), or has government decided that low-income New Brunswickers saving money on heat is a non-essential program?
In the 2010 election campaign, you made a commitment that you would work to find every New Brunswicker a family doctor. Yet your first round of cuts suspended incentive programs for doctors and nurse practitioners. Is your government's position that current levels of doctors will be acceptable, and have you consulted with the medical community on how to communicate these cuts to doctor recruitment in a way that will not discourage new doctors from considering New Brunswick?
Your government promised to freeze property taxes for seniors, and has famously delayed that commitment. Now, municipalities will see their funding cut, and you have repealed the previous legislation placing conditions upon property tax increases While Minister Fitch consults with seniors on the new version of your campaign promise, does your government have any mechanisms which will guarantee that seniors will not see property tax increases this year? Given the message you communicated to seniors who expected a freeze on property taxes, are you prepared to guarantee that seniors will not pay more in property taxes in the coming fiscal year?
In his 2010 budget reply, your Finance Critic said that it was "nonsense" that the Conservative Party would support cuts to health, education and anti-poverty programs and such cuts would be a "last resort". In the very first $38million in cuts, over $22million have already come from schools, early childhood programs, services to people living in poverty and health services. Do you believe that finding only $16million in cuts before turning to health and education is consistent with your contract to make health and education cuts a last resort?