Buyer beware. It’s as valuable in politics as it is in any other kind of sale. Tuesday, Municipal and Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Steve Kent was trotting out three years’ of provincial money, some $200 million in infrastructure funding.
The announcement was welcomed by municipal leaders, because knowing the amounts of money that they can expect from the province will let them take construction projects to tender faster, and get the work started as soon as weather conditions permit.
That is, in pretty much all ways, a good thing.
However, the announcement was something else as well: it was, sadly, something that we’ve come to expect from the provincial government, an effort to make as much political hay as possible from announcements of government spending. The pre-budget announcement and the multi-year announcement have one purpose above all others: to get as much political bang for the bucks being spent as you possibly can.
Last year, the pre-budget hype was for a different three-year plan: “A strong vision and a diligent plan is coming to fruition today as the Honourable Kathy Dunderdale, premier of Newfoundland and Labrador, outlined a $227 million investment over the next three years to advance construction of a new regional acute care health facility in Corner Brook.”
In 2012, it was, “With a Budget 2012 investment of $65.8 million, the provincial government will call the final tenders to complete Phase I of the Trans Labrador Highway from Labrador West to Happy Valley-Goose Bay.” You get the concept.
This isn’t Progressive Conservative politics or Liberal politics: all sorts of governments now play this kind of funding shell-game.
Tuesday’s particular example is probably the most blatant in recent memory, for a number of reasons: first of all, because it’s a near-certainty to be re-announced when the provincial budget is actually brought down.
Second, because it promises multi-year funding, funding that really can’t be counted on until the next budget year actually appears. (It’s a little like a recent announcement that midwifery will be available under the public health-care system, but not for another five to seven years.) If the province runs into some kind of fiscal crunch, changes to municipal infrastructure funding will be on the chopping block just as quickly as anything else.
And third, because the $200 million announcement is, essentially, an announcement of the status quo. The last multi-year municipal capital works program had a budget equal to $65 million a year: Tuesday’s announcement is for $66.6 million a year.
To repeat: getting construction projects underway quickly in our limited construction season is not a bad idea. It helps municipalities plan for what’s possible, and what has to be postponed for another year.
Just remember: when the money’s announced in the provincial budget later this spring, it will still be the same money, just like it will be the same money every time a project is announced under the program, just like it will be when it’s announced again in next year’s budget.
It’s just advertising: as always, buyer beware.