1,000 cuts

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It looks a little like the provincial government is using its tried-and-true budget playbook — only in reverse.

For years, the government has tried to get more bang for its buck by announcing budgetary measures in dribs and drabs ahead of time.

Sometimes it’s funding announcements that are made with considerable fanfare and then re-made in the actual budget. Other times, it’s strategic and deliberate leaks that grab more attention in the news cycle.

Now, though, it’s dribs and drabs of budget pain. Last Friday, a confusing news release about cuts to employment assistance services turned out to mean the loss of something like 260 rural jobs. On Tuesday, it was the announcement of an early retirement incentive to shift up to 400 public servants off of the cash-strapped government’s payroll and onto the cash-strapped pension fund.

It may not be death by a thousand cuts, but it’s starting to feel that way, and it’s only early days yet.

At the same time, it’s confusing when you think about priorities. Monday saw the announcement of $44-million for a lift bridge in Placentia, cold comfort for people who work with the unemployed. Millions in money for companies to provide broadband Internet service in small areas, but caps on the province’s adult dental plan, meaning longer waits for those who can’t pay for dental care. (In a way, it’s funding bread and circuses for people who are, unfortunately, unable to chew the crusts.)

Schools are being built, sometimes at huge cost, but salaries in the Education Department are already under the microscope, with the minister musing about board amalgamations to save money.

The province has also announced it will spend

$4 million to hopefully save $15 million.

Here’s the rationale: “The provincial government has engaged the expertise of Deloitte to work with a cross-government team to achieve minimum targeted savings of approximately $15 million annually, with the contract with Deloitte valued at approximately

$4 million. The team will work with the regional health authorities, school boards, College of the North Atlantic and Memorial University of Newfoundland, among others. Deloitte has worked with other provincial governments in Canada on similar projects.”

It’s an interesting admission: if the government could figure out where to make its own cuts, it would save $15 million instead of the $11 million left once Deloitte is paid.

But Deloitte does offer something that’s in short supply during times of budget cuts: the ability to shift the blame and say “We’re only following the advice we’ve been given.”

It’s one way to minimize the sting.

Here’s another way: having announced we are in dire financial straits, the government could save the cuts for budget day and then lay them all out in a comprehensive, detailed and thorough way. “Here’s the actual extent of the problem and here’s how we intend to address it” might be a good start.

The problem now is that no one knows how many cuts are coming, how much money the province has to save or who’s in the line of fire.

And for the government, a new cost-cutting announcement every day means a fresh set of news stories. Instead of managing their own message, the provincial government runs the risk of letting it get completely out of control.

Organizations: College of the North Atlantic and Memorial University of Newfoundland, Education Department

Geographic location: Placentia, Canada

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