By Jesse Robichaud
As appeared on page A1
The Liberal government’s decision to fatten purses as part of a $1 million injection into the harness racing industry over the next three years has left critics wondering where its priorities lie as schools crumble under the effects of a massive cut to the Department of Education’s capital budget.
Luc Cormer, student president of Clement- Cormier High School in Bouctouche, is faced with the consequences of what the Liberals have called “tough decisions” every day as he goes to school and deals with frigid temperatures, foul odours, suspect air quality, and sometime rodents.
Cormier says the government’s decision to put off much-needed and longpromised renovations to his school is even more crushing when he sees where money is being spent.
“It’s even more disappointing when they say that they don’t have money to invest in our school, and they invest in things that aren’t really necessary, like gambling. People lose money with that,” he said.
“Putting money toward gambling and not in education and saying they don’t have the money because of the deficit, you question yourself about the priorities they do have,” he said, noting recent air quality inspections that have prompted orders for windows to be opened “whenever possible.” The capital budget, which was cut down to $30 million compared to the government’s $58 million budget last year, has left many schools, including Moncton High School, in similar situations.
Raymond Drennan, who has a daughter attending Clement- Cormier and a son who will be attending the school soon, says the government’s actions are contradicting their words as the Education Minister’s education plan was released yesterday.
“I think you judge your governments by their actions ,not by their words. And right now the government’s actions are saying they don’t care about education,” he said.
Alluding to Education Minister Kelly Lamrock’s education plan, which was released yesterday, Drennan said studies and system overhauls are fine, but not at the expense of students.
“Doing studies and revamping the current system is very nice but when the present students are being sacrificed for a future plan that might happen or never happen, I don’t see the sense in that.” “If education is a deeply rooted value, and not just an election gimmick, then they will find money to improve the infrastructure of schools, and not let anything get in the way of that.” “If you find money for gambling, that means that’s your deepest held value.” Kent-South Tory MLA Claude Williams echoed that disappointment.
“When I see this three-year plan for harness racing, it kind of indicates the premier and his ministers don’t understand their priorities.” Yesterday, however, Agriculture Minister Ronald Ouellette dismissed any link made between decisions made by his department and those of the Minister of Education.
“Whatever money you spend elsewhere, everybody that needs it out there will wonder why you put it there and not somewhere else,” he said. “But there again, it’s just a matter of working with departments.
Each department has their own budget and it’s just a question of spending that budget as best we can.” Ouellette compared the investment to financial aid that was directed at beekeepers earlier this session to help the industry rebound from decimated bee populations.
Ouellette said that on top of providing funding for the improvement of breeding stock within the standardbred horse racing industry, the money will help the harness racing industry stay competitive with the United States, western provinces and Prince Edward Island, where government subsidizes the industry.
But Peter McKenna, a political science professor at the University of Prince Edward Island, says New Brunswick is wandering down a dangerous path as it uses public money to bolster what he calls an industry that is simply surviving on government-assisted life support in his province.
McKenna says once the Charlottetown racino opened, revenues from its 225 VLTS were supposed to wean the industry off the provincial government’s $1 million per year subsidy, but due to poor performance that did not happen.
In fact, the subsidy jumped to $2.1 million per year.
“The only way it will survive is if government props it up. So you start with $300,000 and, eventually, they are going to come back to the trough and say it’s not enough, and eventually you will have to make a decision; Do we prop them up or cut them loose,” he said, calling the chances of the industry eventually standing on its own virtually nonexistent.
McKenna believes the Graham government is using the announcement to buy time as it decides on the place a racino will have in its long-awaited gaming policy.
“They obviously haven’t made a decision on the racino for Saint John, and they are looking to placate the harness racing sector without having to replicate what happened here in Charlottetown with the racino and the bank of VLTs.” Adam Taylor, the National Research Director at the Canadian Federation of Taxpayers, called the announcement mind-boggling in a year when taxes were hiked across the board.
“To suggest using public money to increase potential winnings for those who gamble at the racetrack, I guess that’s not people’s idea of government providing essential services, especially when a government says we don’t have enough money for things like schools.” “It’s an absolute irresponsible use of taxpayer money. If people were given the choice of increasing the purse size of harness racing, or insuring that schools are rodent free, I think it would be a no-brainer.” Taylor questioned whether the Graham government understands the economy or its role in it, and likened the move to the Progressive Conservative Party of Manitoba’s recently unsuccessful election promise to bring back the NHL’s Winnipeg Jets through subsidies.
Charles Cirtwill, the acting president of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, says it is proven that subsidies don’t work in many sectors, particularly struggling industries like harness racing.
“If you give them a million this year, you better be ready to give them two million next year,” he said.
“Nova Scotia was propping up this industry for quite some time and they were losing money handover- fist until, ultimately, they had to step away from it, and eventually harness racing effectively died across the province.”