Too many ways to hide the numbers

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Earlier this week, the provincial Liberals still refrained from scathing reviews of the previous government’s handling of finances. But the temptation grew too great as they released their first fiscal update.

Not only did they use the cliché, ‘worse than we’d thought.’ They updated the slim surplus for 2013-14 claimed by the previous NDP government to a gaping $481.7 million deficit.

Bad math? Perhaps. A huge factor in the discrepancy as the Liberals explain it is advice from the auditor general regarding an unfunded liability to the public sector pension, for a one-time budget hit of $280 million.

In defence of the NDP’s numbers, acting leader Maureen MacDonald questions the need to pay that in one fell swoop, drastically straining one year’s figures. You don’t pay off a mortgage in a year, argues MacDonald, who was also finance minister for the NDP before their defeat.

With the books in worse shape than expected, the Liberals now say they will have departments comb through budgets and find ways to trim by one per cent.

That’s always a good exercise, one that shouldn’t be saved solely for dire circumstances. But it’ll take more than that in the long run to restore this province’s financial health. As Conservative finance critic Tim Houston said, everything needs review, with a look through budgets line-by-line and some tough decisions.

But the total disconnect between changes of government has to end. There has to be clarity in budget numbers to eliminate so-called surprises after an election. The government and opposition shouldn’t be comparing apples and oranges.

Also in regard to long-term expenditures, such as public pensions and universities: establish some standards for funding them, so that year-to-year budgets can’t be fudged by shifting an expense into a different fiscal year.

No doubt a confusing mess is intended, as it serves the purpose of disguise. But it’s been done so many times now the charade has long since worn through.

Organizations: NDP

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