12 February 2016

Clowncil should try honesty, not more secrecy #nlpoli

The problem at St. John's city council isn't the recent budget.

Council is a nest of ego and ambition.  Not so very long ago,  council members fought among themselves privately and publicly.   Some of it wasn't very pretty.  Some of it was often very petty. But in the clash among councillors the public found out about what was happening with their city.

The current crop of councillors decided that the best thing for them to do is take decisions and debate out of the public view and to move it behind closed doors, into the shadows.  They caught the disease of arrogance and entitlement that infects provincial politics. 

The budget was nothing more than a symptom of the deeper problems at city hall.

11 February 2016

Nalcor: Generations #nlpoli

Telegram editor Peter Jackson took a hard look this week at the implications of Nalcor’s effort this week to jack up electricity rates.

As part of the company’s rate application to the public utilities board,  Nalcor said a relatively dry season on the island had deleted its water reservoirs.  As a result it had to burn more oil to make electricity and therefore ratepayers needed to cover that cost.

Jackson notes that with Nalcor’s plan to scrap the Holyrood generating station, we’ll be left to rely on Muskrat Falls and its relatively small reservoir.  That small reservoir means the Muskrat Falls generators will depend on a water management arrangement with Churchill Falls.

And then Jackson puts everything in perspective:

10 February 2016

Politicians and Public Debt #nlpoli

Remember the debt clock?

Finance minister Tom Marshall went around the province during that year’s budget consultation – now “rebranded” as “engagement” – with this big electric counter that purported to show how much interest on taxpayers were racking up on the public debt.

$1,400 a minute back then.

“That clock is ticking away showing a tremendous amount of money on interest that I'd rather see go into programs," said Marshall,  in a CBC story about the annual budget circus.

Now here’s the real question:  what year was that?

09 February 2016

Decision-Based Evidence-Making #nlpoli

The government’s “renewal initiative” is supposed to be guided by something called “evidence-based decision-making.”

It’s right there, right after “affordable and sustainable public services” as one of five principles listed in the colourful little hand-out the government has been using as part of its “engagement” exercise.

How odd then that so far the Liberal administration has failed to apply the principle of supporting decisions with evidence.

08 February 2016

Using his words #nlpoli

Politicians are usually very careful about the words they use.

That’s why it’s important to notice the words Premier Dwight Ball used this weekend in an interview with Tom Clark for Global’s current affairs show The West Block.

Ball said there was “no real sure fix” for the provincial government’s financial problems. But he did say that the government’s plan would involve revenue-generation, controlling expenses, efficient spending, and “what Ottawa can do to help initiatives around infrastructure.”  Ball also said that the provincial government would be applying for the same “sustainability” funding that Alberta was getting.

So what does that mean in concrete terms?

05 February 2016

Old whine still sour #nlpoli

"I'm concerned that we have an aging asset,”  natural resources minister Siobhan Coady told CBC in explaining the most recent break downs at the Holyrood generating station.

About two years ago, in the midst of darknl,  then-Premier Kathy Dunderdale said pretty much the same thing:  “We've talked incessantly, it seems to me, over the last number of years about the aging facility in Holyrood and the fact that that facility needed to be replaced.”  Before that, Nalcor and its supporters used “aging infrastructure” and the inevitable climb of oil prices as the excuse to build the multi-billion dollar Muskrat Falls project.

The old whine in new skins isn't any sweeter in the ear whether it is coming from Coady or Dunderdale.

Indeed, what’s most disturbing about Siobhan Coady's media interview is that in the two years since darknl we have learned that the lines someone fed Coady are not true.

Yet someone still fed Coady the false lines and Coady used them.

04 February 2016

Get the message: get a grip #nlpoli

Two former Premiers sent a very pointed message to Premier Dwight Ball this week about the way Ball has been handling the provincial government’s massive deficit problem.

Brian Tobin was in St. John’s to present a cheque on behalf of the Bank of Montreal to the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Great War. Tobin said people need to understood that the current cabinet felt a problem far worse than any other in the province’s history.  people need to pull together, but for Ball personally, Tobin said that while it was best to be consistent and right, if you had to pick between the two, it was better to be right.  “Do the right thing,”  said Tobin.

Grimes did media interviews on Wednesday in addition to offering a guest post at SRBP.  He told Ball that it was important to put everything on the table.  Grimes specifically cited Muskrat Falls, with the billions in borrowing to finish the project, as well as energy marketing and offshore oil equity stakes.

03 February 2016

Fiscal Stabilization Program #nlpoli

On the one hand, it’s great to live in a country that has a program to let the federal government shunt money to provincial governments that run into financial difficulties.

On the other hand, it’s disappointing that the current provincial administration is talking up the prospect of getting more hand-outs from Ottawa rather than bringing its spending in line with its revenues.

“The Fiscal Stabilization Program, introduced in 1967, compensates provinces if their revenues fall substantially from one year to the next due to changes in economic circumstances. …  A province is eligible for stabilization payments if economic conditions cause its revenues to decline in excess of five per cent in one year. The maximum amount payable is $60 per resident.”

Unless the federal government changes the maximum payable, we are talking about a mere $31 or $32 million for Newfoundland and Labrador.

The legal authority for the Fiscal Stabilization Program is in the Federal-Provincial Fiscal Arrangements Act.  The amount of money a province can receive comes from a formula in the Act that compares one year’s provincial revenue with that of the year before. The formula distinguishes between resource revenue and non-resource revenue.

The Act sets a limit on the maximum amount available to a provincial government.  The limit is $60 per person in the province according to the most recent sentence.  If the formula gives a larger amount than the $60 per capita,  a provincial government can receive the full amount.  Anything beyond the $60 per person maximum would be considered a loan.

A Quebec government summary says that no “province received benefits under this program until 1981-1982, when British Columbia received benefits. QuĂ©bec qualified for a payment twice in the early 1990s. However, since the “minimum 5% decline” threshold was restored in 1995-1996 (after having been abandoned in 1972), no province has received compensation.”


From a decade of prosperity to $2 billion deficits: What happened?

By Roger Grimes

Reflecting upon becoming the eighth Premier of Newfoundland and Labrador 15 years ago this month, I found myself chatting with a few friends and associates about where the province found itself fiscally at that time, what happened during the next decade, and where we find ourselves today.

During my tenure as Premier, we were a persistent “have not” province with a deficit problem of roughly ten percent. We ran annual deficits of roughly $500 million on a total budget of $4.5 billion. Now, after a decade of unparalleled prosperity and “have” status within the Equalization system, we find ourselves with a twenty-five percent deficit problem comprised of a $2 billion deficit on an $8 billion total annual budget.

02 February 2016

Using data aggressively #nlpoli

These days campaigns are about collecting information on voters and using the data.

The Ted Cruz campaign has been especially aggressive in  Iowa with a mailer that highlights the poor record of some voters of participating in caucuses.

The thing came in a brown envelope (above) and consisted of  single sheet of yellow paper (below) marked like a ballot that showed a score and percentage grade for voters named on the sheet. 

These folks don’t typically turn out to vote, so Cruz was trying to goad them into participating. Voting records are public in some American states so campaigns can tell who voted and who didn't.  Your neighbours.

You can tell if it worked by the results from Monday’s caucuses.


01 February 2016

Newfoundland government finance, 1832 to 1949 #nlpoli

Before Newfoundlanders stopped governing themselves in the early winter of 1934, they’d run a sometimes arduous course.

Newfoundland gained a limited form of self-government in 1832 and in 1855 gained Responsible Government.  That gave control of  virtually everything except defence and foreign policy to a cabinet made up of members of the elected assembly and the appointed upper chamber of the legislature. 

By the 1880s,  the government wanted to expand the economy beyond the fishery.  They started a railway project to open up the interior of the island and the western coast, much the same way that the Americans and Canadians had used the latest technology – the railway – to expand to their west.

31 January 2016

Junkyard wars

Syrian rebels have been using modern technology in the simplest of ways in their war against the Assad regime in Syria.

In the picture at left,  a rebel crew are shown using an angle meter app for the iPad to check the alignment of a mortar barrel before an attack.

According to a story in the Daily Mail last September,  the photo shows members of the 'Ansar Dimachk' Brigade, which operates under the Free Syrian Army, using a tablet "to help fire a homemade mortar towards a battlefront in Jobar, a suburb of Damascus."

The rebels have also been using iPads for other purposes as well, as the following video shows.


30 January 2016

AG reports on suspected frauds in FY 2014 #nlpoli

In his most recent report, Auditor General Terry Paddon disclosed alleged frauds identified during his review of the provincial government's accounts:
  • The finance department's Professional Services and Internal Audit Division discovered a potential fraud of $42,000, less about 10% that had been repaid, that occurred in the the division's examination of the Provincial Courts bank reconciliation processes. The Department of Justice and Public Safety referred this matter to the police for investigation. 
  • The same division reported a suspected fraud in the Department of Transportation and Works' depot involving thefts of automotive fuel and supplies as well as inappropriate use of employee resources. "It was concluded by the Division that due to the poor state of records and lack of effective internal controls at the depot, it was not possible to prove that any fraud had occurred. No further action was taken."
  • During a routine review of travel claims, the Department of Justice and Public Safety identified irregularities that totalled approximately $1,300. The Department forwarded the matter to the police for investigation. 
  • The Department of Child, Youth and Family Services reported that A foster parent may have committed fraud by submitting claims for funding for overnight babysitting when no babysitting services were provided. CYFS turned the matter over to the police and the individual is no longer a foster parent. 
  • The Department of Advanced Education and Skills identified an alleged forgery of documentation submitted for reimbursement of approximately $30,000 for medical transportation costs and possible false documentation to support $27,000 in client rental payments.  Both cases are with the police.
  • The Forestry and Agrifoods Agency identified an alleged misappropriation of funds by an employee of the agency that involved deliberately delaying the submission of cash remittances and personally using the funds during the intervening period.   The agency recovered the $21,000 involved,  terminated the employee but did not report the matter to the police.  
  • Nalcor Energy identified a theft of petty cash of $360.  Nalcor revised its procedures for handling petty cash.
  • The Provincial Information and Library Resources Board informed the AG of a fraud against the board involving a cheque that had apparently be altered.  The board subsequently recovered the $7,100 from its bank but did not report the matter to the police. 
  • The Newfoundland and Labrador Housing Corporation identified an instance of improper retention of public money in which two employees were using their assigned corporate procurement cards to make purchases for personal use. Overall, the improper transactions amounted to $5,156 ($4,698 related to one employee and $458 to another). The $5,156 has been recovered from both employees and one employee has resigned. The other remains an employee of the Corporation. The Corporation has not referred the matter to the police. 


29 January 2016

S and P lowers NL rating, cites uncertainty of fiscal policy #nlpoli

Standard and Poor's said on Friday that the company had lowered its credit rating for the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador and Newfoundland and Labrador Hydro from A+ to A with a negative outlook.

In a news release, the company said the "negative outlook reflects our view of the uncertainty of the magnitude of the government's expected fiscal policy response to lowered offshore royalties and projected operating and after-capital deficits."

S and P's base-case forecast for 2014 to 2018 gives the government an "average operating deficit of about 7% of adjusted operating revenue and average after-capital deficits of close to 19%
of total adjusted revenues."  S and P calls this weak.  The company also said that it considers the government's "budgetary performance is subject to considerable volatility, given its high reliance on resource royalties...."

The company said it considers both the province's debt burden and contingent liabilities level to be high.  The company cited unfunded pension liability and the risk associated with Nalcor and Muskrat Falls as key issues in these areas.  "We believe the province has an incentive to provide extraordinary government support to Nalcor in the event of financial stress." Standard and Poor's also considered the government's luiqidity level to be low.

S and P  noted the strong federal-provincial financial relationship,  the provincial government's financial management history,  and strong budget flexibility as factor's working in the provincial government's favour.   "We believe that the province's economic and fiscal situation will make public acceptance of fiscal measures, such as tax increases and spending reductions, much more acceptable despite their unpopularity."  

The negative outlook reflects the uncertainty of the magnitude of the government's expected fiscal policy response to lowered offshore royalties and projected operating and after-capital deficits. We could revise the outlook to stable if the newly elected government takes the fiscal measures necessary to establish an improving trend in its budgetary performance beyond fiscal 2017, and develops a credible plan to restore budgetary balance in the medium term. Conversely, we could take a negative rating action should the province's budgetary performance show signs of weakening further beyond what we expect for fiscal 2017, particularly if projected after-capital deficits remain near 23% of consolidated operating revenues or the tax-supported debt burden reaches 270% of projected consolidated operating revenues [currently 100%].




28 January 2016

Moody's warns NL government on finances #nlpoli

Moody's Investor Services is the second rating agency to give the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador a negative trending  in light of the government's financial problems.

In a release, Moody's said that the "negative outlook for the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador reflects the rising risk that the province's fiscal position will deteriorate further than previously expected in an environment of protracted low oil prices and reduced economic activity. Without corrective fiscal action, this will lead to significant deficits, resulting in rapid debt accumulation across the medium-term."

Moody's expects oil to sell at US$33 a barrel in 2016 rising to US$38 a barrel in 2017 and US$43 a barrel in 2018.  The company expects that this will lead to significant deficits, with the deficit for the current fiscal year expected to reach 32% of revenue.  

"The outlook could be revised back to stable if the province introduces and implements a comprehensive fiscal plan that limits debt accumulation and debt service at levels in line with similarly rated peers, or exceeds these levels for a short period only."

Although the company describes the provincial debt level as low compared to its rating peers,  the company cautioned that "a lengthy period of consolidated deficits, along with a long-term expectation of recording debt in excess of 200% of revenues ... could result in negative pressures on the rating."

Gross debt is already more than 200% larger than anticipated revenues and net debt is almost guaranteed to hit or exceed that trigger, if the company includes consideration of the financial implications of Muskrat Falls.