Contemporary government budgets are challenging to deconstruct for several reasons. Their tone is invariably upbeat and enthusiastic. They are financially complicated, involving numerous line items on both the expenditure and revenue sides, discrepancies between previous forecasts and current results, and complex calculations of forecasts for future years. They are enormously detailed, involving hundreds of existing programs and dozens of new programs. When new programs or initiatives are described, no attention is given to the alternatives that were rejected.
Budgets are incremental and they often make much ado about additional funding for existing programs, without disclosing current funding. Thus, it is hard to known whether the additional funding is significant or whether it is much ado about very little.
Budgets often contain new initiatives that receive token funding. For the politicians, the point is announcing a new initiative, especially if it is expected to be popular or a response to a problem of growing public concern. Never mind that the money allocated is insufficient to do anything meaningful.
Budgets are the product not only of the politicians, but of public servants as well. Public servants undoubtedly will have some ideas for new initiatives, and they will end up in the budget, with politicians of course taking the credit.
Budgets usually hit the headlines for a day or two and then disappear from public view. The main exception to this is when a budget imposes a new tax and an interest group organizes to fight it.
As budgets are the result of the activity of thousands of public servants and hundreds of politicians and their advisers, it would require a team of analysts to make sense of and critique a budget. To its credit, for many years the School of Public Administration at Carleton University supported an annual review of federal government spending. I’m working alone, so I will focus on some examples of tokenistic incremental spending and two policy areas (climate change, higher education) with which I am familiar.
“The government is investing close to $1 million over three years to expand the Seniors Safety Line … the only dedicated senior abuse helpline operating provincewide” (p. 100). We’re not told how much is already being spent. Given that a helpline must operate 24/7, I calculate that this initiative will support one or at most two new agents.
“As announced in the 2022 Budget, the government is investing an additional $5 million annually for three years starting in 2022-23 to support 6500 people with dementia to live independently in their homes and to be engaged in their community.” The definition of dementia is that it destroys a person’s ability to live independently, so it’s not clear that it is better for them to live at home than in a memory care facility. This announcement, which was highlighted on page 87, is simply a repeat of one in last year’s budget. We’re not told how much is currently being spent or whether the 6500 people are already enrolled in the program or new to the program. Regardless, $5 million spread over 6500 people works out to only $769 per person.
I could likely fill several more pages deconstructing tokenistic initiatives such as these, but I’ll spare you.
Greenwashing on a Major Scale
The Ford Government is using the budget to signal that it is committed to fighting climate change and producing green energy, but the details of the budget as well as facts omitted from it make these claims dubious.
The Government boasts that the vast majority of Ontario’s electricity involves no carbon emissions because it is hydroelectric or nuclear. This is true, but the budget doesn’t mention that the government is expanding the production of carbon-emitting natural gas-powered electricity for a decade until it can refurbish and expand its nuclear capacity. Wind and solar energy are notable by their absence in Ontario’s plans.
The budget mentions that the cuts to the gas and fuel tax of 11 cents per litre have been extended to Dec. 31, 2023 (p. 78) These cuts are greater than the federal carbon tax, nullifying the tax’s incentive to change behaviour and reduce carbon emissions.
The budget boasts that “Ontario has created its own Emissions Performance Standards (EPS) program as an alternative to the federal Output Base Pricing System on industrial emissions. On January 1, 2022, the Ontario EPS program took effect to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from large industrial facilities. It will help industry save over $1 billion compared to the federal policy” (p. 26). I imagine the savings for industry are because Ontario’s standards are lower than the federal ones.
The budget also sets out a “voluntary clean energy credit registry” from which businesses can buy credits “to demonstrate that their energy has been sourced from clean resources,” with the funds spent being returned to electricity users (p. 31). It is far from clear how this registry would work and why businesses would be willing to pay anything for certification from a government with so weak a commitment to fighting climate change.
Finally, as an affordability measure in an inflationary context, the Ford Government has chosen to continue the Wynne Government’s subsidization of consumer electricity, with ongoing subsidies of approximately $6 billion. If something is subsidized, people will consume too much of it. An alternative to subsidizing electricity would have been a $ 6 billion tax cut, which would be substantial.
Malign Neglect of the Universities
Universities are mentioned in the budget in the few instances in which they figure in government priorities such as training more doctors and nurses (p. 141), expanding the McMaster University Nuclear Reactor and Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (p. 141), and delivering micro-credentials in areas like healthcare analytics and AI (p. 72).
What isn’t mentioned in the budget is that tuition fees for Ontario students were rolled back 10 percent in 2018, have been frozen ever since, and with the government’s focus on affordability, are not likely to be unfrozen any time soon. Nor are government grants to the universities increasing. The universities’ costs have been kept down by the constraints on public sector salaries in Bill 124 (which was struck down in Superior Court, a decision the Government is now challenging in the Court of Appeal).
The universities have responded to financial constraint by admitting more out-of-province students and substituting less expensive instructors such as part-time faculty. The salary restraint is likely to lead to the most talented faculty leaving.
I’m surprised at how little the universities have publicly protested the Ford Government’s policy of malign neglect. With a premier who is always vindictive and who has never darkened the door of a university, perhaps they don’t want to poke the bear.
Needed: Deconstructionist Wrecking Crews
What the province desperately needs are deconstructionist wrecking crews to examine in depth the budget and its relationship to current policies and programs for every policy area. The wrecking crews could come from the Opposition parties, the media, or interest groups such as environmentalists or labour. My foray into the budget pages convinces me that Ontario is getting slickly marketed lousy government, and that must be exposed.