By John Kennedy
What’s reform without a good grandfather clause? It seems MLAs will be getting back leftover spending money from January to March that was denied to them after the expense inquiry, thanks to the House of Assembly Management Commission’s ruling. Constituency office budgets will be back to their 2009 numbers for the time being.
This reminds me of someone who has to go on a diet but they are dragging out that last fast-food meal. Like a fast-food meal (sometimes), it feels unnecessary and overindulgent. This budgetary increase will allow for, among other things, more charitable donations and advertising: two things constituencies should do less of.
I’m not against benevolence, but politicians should not be using taxpayer dollars to donate to charities. Citizens are perfectly capable of donating to charities they believe are worthwhile, and giving MLAs retroactive money for this purpose does not seem like good policy or good use of taxpayer money.
What’s worse about the new allocation of this “back” money is that it appears to be a way to get around the new advertising limitations. Asking constituency offices to cut advertising dollars to 10 per cent of office expenditure is good in theory, but it’s going to be hard to deliver considering the range of spending was between 15 and 85 per cent of office budgets before the reform. Increasing advertising, regardless of whether it is for partisan purposes or not, will only further fuel public cynicism and resentment.
Most people don’t care what MLAs advertise and they certainly don’t want to pay for something they don’t care about. The fact that one MLA used this money to sponsor a hockey team so that team members could wear a tag with his name on the sweater will certainly not go over well with taxpayers, especially not those children’s parents who did not vote for that MLA. I guess this is what Deputy Premier Frank Corbett meant when he said the money would be spent wisely.
While giving constituencies three months of so-called backlogged, leftover budget monies certainly won’t break the bank (after all, it’s been broken for a while), its timing couldn’t be worse. This announcement came just days after the HST increase that the government says was necessary to help cut the deficit. Basically, they want to cut the deficit without cutting too many programs, and they want to do that by reaching further into our pockets rather than finding the spare change in their own. That doesn’t really send the right message to an increasingly angered public.
Just because money is there, that doesn’t mean you have to spend it. It’s clear that “fiscal responsibility” nowadays is nothing more than a rhetorical term with no intrinsic value.
The fact that Deputy Premier Frank Corbett is so ambiguous about these payments certainly doesn’t help. While it wouldn’t come close to making a dent in the deficit, this money is a surplus, so treat it as such. Put it towards the deficit anyway, and gain some good grace from the public instead of angering us even more. But if you are hell-bent on letting constituency offices spend this “extra” cash, I suggest that you shouldn’t announce it right after you have increased our taxes. That really is throwing salt on the wound.
John Kennedy is the Manning Centre intern at the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies, an independent, non-partisan public policy think tank in Halifax.