by Lynne Fernandez
Here at the CCPA we have recently focused on whether the straightjacket imposed by Balanced Budget Legislation (BBL) is good for Manitoba. It is gratifying to note that the British Columbia NDP is asking the same question for BC. The undue pressure this punitive legislation imposes on government’s ability to significantly address social and economic problems is well known.
A glaring example of the perverse results that can result from BBL is the news that is making a slow burn through the Manitoba environmental community, news that the Manitoba Government intends to close the Environment Library at the VIA Rail Station, 123 Main Street. The Environment Library supports the technical and knowledge-based work that the Department of Conservation and Water Stewardship is responsible for and the regulatory and licensing intelligence necessary to adequately protect Manitoba’s environment. The Library also houses the primary Public Registry under the Environment Act. As the province moves into significant public hearings around several major infrastructure projects, the timing seems especially ill advised.
This closure needs to be put in the context of shrinking government resources caused by more than a decade of tax reductions, and the added pressure of balanced budget legislation that unreasonably restricts the government from running deficits in response to changing economic circumstances.
The Manitoba Balanced Budget Legislation contains a requirement for a referendum around any contemplated tax increases, but as others have pointed out, no similar obligation pertains to the corrosive tax decreases that have recently been granted. This would seem to be a built in austerity mechanism, an austerity “ghost in the machine”, haunting the viability of our social services. The other BBL requirement is that in the case of a negative balance (deficit) beyond the allowed rolling 4 year average, Minister’s salaries above the amounts due them as regular MLAs must be reduced by either 20% or 40% depending upon the particular circumstance.
A number of adjustments are allowed in determining the net income or loss in any particular year, and these include natural disasters, unusual weather or climate conditions, and, “…a decision of another level of government or of a regulatory body….the fiscal impact of which was not anticipated in the Budget.” The recent impact of major floods on Manitoba’s fiscal situation and the ongoing difficulties of confirming disaster relief amounts to be cost shared with the Federal Government offer obvious mitigating circumstances that would allow the government to legitimately circumvent our rigid BBL. As to decisions of other levels of government, the off-loading of the Federal Conservatives onto provincial jurisdictions is well known and widespread, in areas such as health care, justice, agricultural programming, environmental licensing, etc.
Failing the use of these allowed exemptions, Ministers should then stand up on principle and take a salary hit to prevent further damage to our social programming.
Closing the Environment Library seems to violate the government’s legislated mandate to provide access to information. In this it would appear that Manitoba is not only facing an economic deficit, but also under a looming social and democratic deficit. Are there other departments and/or programs that will be adversely affected by budget cuts required to achieve the government’s overall budgetary objective?
In the short term, any potential savings to be realized by the Environment Library closure would in all likelihood be cancelled out by the necessary transition costs around alternatives still to be developed. It is surprising that the Minister would allow the capacity of his department to be curtailed in this way, in seeming contradiction to the forward looking optimism of the recently announced Green Plan Strategy. Hopefully there is still time for some sober second thought.
For more information, see the Manitoba Wildlands website.