And when they do, costs are often underestimated, says think-tank

The lists of promises are getting longer and longer, but so far neither the Liberals nor the Progressive Conservatives have revealed just how they are planning to pay for all the commitments they’ve made to New Brunswickers over the course of the election campaign thus far.

Considering the fact that the economy is just coming out of a slump and that as a small province New Brunswick is continually struggling to find enough cash to offer the services people seek, can we even begin to afford some of the programs the two leading parties have put on the table?

“You, me, the taxpayers and the people making the promises all know the answer to that question, and the answer is no,” says Charles Cirtwill, president and CEO of the Atlantic Institute of Market Studies.

“We all know and they know that they are lying or being less than truthful. Or to put it more nicely, they know they are being overly optimistic and we know they are being overly optimistic and we judge them on who is being most reasonably overly optimistic.”

Such is the endless election dance.

But the promises just sound so good.

The Liberal Party has said it will create 20,000 new jobs over the next four years, add 550 new advanced care beds for seniors in the province, and freeze property assessments for two years. It would also add 55 new billing numbers for doctors, buy a personal computer for every middle and high school student, add 7,000 new child care spaces and create a new statutory holiday in February.

The Progressive Conservatives, for their part, say they will freeze energy rates for the next three years, cap property tax assessments at three per cent over the next two years and permanently freeze assessments for homeowners over 65, and invest up to $35 million over four years to create more child care spaces.

They also pledge to halve small business tax over the next four years, create a catastrophic drug plan, subsidizing costs on a case-by-case basis, and reinstate the $5.5 million home-heating subsidy budget.

“When they come to your door promising a new program, just remember that six months ago they were telling you New Brunswick was broke and ask them a very simple question – what are you going to cut to pay for it?” Cirtwill advises.

Over the first 16 days of the campaign the Liberals and the Tories have each announced at least 50 different commitments.

The problem is very, very few have come with a definite price tag and estimating a cost for most is well beyond the ability of the average taxpayer. Just how much does it cost to create 20,000 jobs, for instance? How much revenue will the province lose if it caps or freezes property tax assessments?

Colin Craig of the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation suggests New Brunswickers look at campaign promises with a healthy dose of skepticism.

“Taxpayers have seen this movie before,” he says. “It stars politicians who repeatedly say, ‘Trust us,’ and then go on to betray the trust of taxpayers once elected.”

Craig says the campaigning parties should be telling voters how they can better spend existing dollars instead of focusing on how they can spend even more money.

“Taxpayers should be looking for the best plan that doesn’t focus on new spending, but rather a plan that shows how existing dollars could be better spent,” he says. “It seems both parties are making announcements without focusing on getting the deficit under control and indicating what the cost of their promises are.”

Craig says if the parties truly do have a plan on how they are going to finance all their commitments, then they should have no problem sharing that with voters.

“What have they got to hide?” he says. “(Taxpayers) should be communicating to any candidate that can’t provide details on the cost of their promises that that is not acceptable. It’s no different than asking taxpayers for a blank cheque. ‘We don’t know how much this will cost, but trust me, I’ll try not to spend too much.'”

Both the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives have promised the costs associated with all their commitments will be included in their party platforms, neither of which have yet been made public.

Progressive Conservative Leader David Alward points out his party released a five-point strategy for managing the province’s finances on the second day of the campaign, which includes getting government spending under control by cutting a minimum of $150 million from government budgets, reducing the size of the civil service, and not going ahead with planned tax cuts, a move he says will save a further $250 million.

While finding $400 million in savings may sound like a lot, consider that the Tories also announced a $200-million northern job creation fund, $35 million to create child care spaces, $22 million over four years to reinstate the annual $5.5-million home heating subsidy budget, and $6 million over four years for additional annual funding for employment supports for people with disabilities, not to mention their caps and freezes on property tax assessments and a promised cut to small business tax, which will reduce revenues, and even $400 million disappears pretty quickly.

Alward says they need to find a balance between getting spending under control while continuing to invest in the priorities of New Brunswickers.

“As we lay out our full platform, which will be in a very few days, New Brunswickers will see what our commitments will cost New Brunswick,” he says.

Cirtwill has no doubt that the parties will come out with actual cost estimates before election day as they feel an obligation to reveal those details to taxpayers. How accurate that costing will be is another question entirely.

“All I can tell you for sure is that no political party has ever been right in their costing during an election,” he says. “All you know for sure is it is going to cost you more than they say it is and they are not going to do as much as they promised.”

And that leads to the post-election dance between the elected government and voters.

“If the Tories get in, they will say the books were worse than what the Liberals led us to believe,” Cirtwill says. “The Liberals will say the economic situation is worse than what we projected or whatever excuse (they come up with). At least it is equal opportunity dissembling. They are both doing it.”

But that presents a challenge for voters.

Presumably some of the promises will get kept, but without knowing which ones, how do you choose who to vote for?

“What you tend to do is look at their general mix of promises, get a sense if there is a difference in direction,” Cirtwill says, adding beyond that it comes down to intangibles like who you trust more or which leader you feel more confident in.

And even though both politicians and voters know the reality will be much different than the picture being painted during the campaign, Cirtwill says things aren’t likely to change any time soon.