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Newfoundland and Labrador's agencies, boards on notice: minister

Finance Minister Tom Osborne speaks Tuesday at a news conference in the media centre at the Confederation Building
Finance Minister Tom Osborne speaks Tuesday at a news conference in the media centre at the Confederation Building - Joe Gibbons

No details yet, but legislation coming

New legislation targeted at Newfoundland and Labrador’s agencies, boards and commissions — including post-secondary institutions, health authorities and Nalcor Energy — is on the way.

What exactly it might contain is unclear at this point, but Finance Minister Tom Osborne said it is meant to assure greater accountability, while pushing for “operational efficiencies” and reduced spending.

With his first fiscal update as minister Tuesday, Osborne said all agencies, boards and commissions of the province have been put on notice.

He told reporters the requests and recommendations coming from the Liberal government have not been met with co-operation.

“We can’t simply just ask and hope they deliver. We need to ensure we get our spending under control. This legislation will be brought in. Whether it has an impact on this upcoming budget remains to be seen. It depends on timing and the regulations and the ability of these agencies, boards and commissions to do their piece of work,” Osborne said. “But to date, we’ve seen great progress within (government) departments, we’ve seen attrition measures within departments. We haven’t yet seen that with the agencies, boards and commissions.”

He highlighted 60 per cent of all current gross spending by the province — a figure excluding debt servicing and pensions — goes to these agencies, boards and commissions.

As for the overall financial situation of Newfoundland and Labrador, total expenses for 2017-18 are still projected at about $8.1 billion, while projected revenues are down by about $79 million from the forecast on budget day, with the latter largely due to lower-than-expected oil royalties.

Despite a higher projected deficit of $852 million, versus $778 million on budget day, Osborne said credit-rating agencies remain satisfied with the province’s performance.

Progressive Conservative finance critic Keith Hutchings told reporters he was a little surprised by the update and that any issues with spending were not addressed by the Liberals before now.

So why didn’t the Progressive Conservatives take similar action?

“We had a number of discussions with the boards and agencies going through, in regards to expenditures … but we also went through a process of growth in terms of driving our post-secondary institutions,” Hutchings said. “But if there’s a need to do that, we’re all in support of that, for them to do it, and take it on now.”

Hutchings said he is also waiting to see the details of what’s being proposed.

NDP MHA Lorraine Michael said she is frustrated by a lack of specifics, and Osborne was “beating around the bush” when asked about the possibility of budget cuts next year and this incoming legislation.

“Government actually controls how much money (agencies, boards and commissions) get and if they put in legislation that’s going to force them into cuts, then that’s government forcing decisions into the hands of these bodies, yet it’s government’s responsibility because of what they’re doing,” Michael said.

Independent MHA Paul Lane said he wants to see some details as well. However, he also would like to see the budgets for agencies, boards and commissions going through something akin to Estimates Committee meetings for government departments. These meetings offer a set time for members of the House to get further information on departmental budgets, line by line. The recordings are made available online.

The Telegram contacted a collection of provincial agencies, boards and commissions (ABC) to ask about Osborne’s notice, with limited response before deadline.

In a statement, an Eastern Health representative said the health authority — subject of the lion’s share of ABC spending — continues to work with the government on financial matters.

“As a regional health authority,” the statement read, “we are accountable for public funds and will adhere to any legislative requirements implemented by government.”

As for public-sector union negotiations, in the context of the budget update, Osborne said he isn’t interested in negotiating in public.

Wayne Lucas, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees in Newfoundland and Labrador, issued a statement Tuesday afternoon saying the government should not cut services or increase taxes in the spring, regardless of the deficit.

“Austerity measures will sound alarm bells and discourage investment in our proud and strong province,” Lucas stated.

Consultations on the next provincial budget are set to begin online before Christmas — earlier than usual. Public meetings will follow in the new year, with times, dates and locations to be announced.

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