What are the checks and balances on public spending? Telegraph Journal – December 7, 2016

Green Party leader David Coon says people want improvements to public services, not cuts.

What can really get many of us riled up is government waste. We’ve all heard at least one story that’s a real head-shaker. For some, the answer is to cut government. For me, that’s just shooting ourselves in the foot, or worse. Public services have already deteriorated thanks to years of cutbacks in the public service.

What we need is to ensure public monies allocated to government departments, and to the health and education systems, are spent effectively and prudently. That is the job of MLAs.

The annual budget for every government department is debated and voted by the MLAs who sit on the estimates committee. A year later, the public accounts committee evaluates how departments spent this money vis-a-vis their mandates and program objectives. Based on its findings, the committee makes recommendations to the legislature to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of departmental spending. Public accounts is also the committee to which the auditor general reports, and it has the responsibility to ensure her recommendations are implemented. When it comes to how public money is budgeted and spent, the buck stops at the legislative assembly.

Last week, five departments and the auditor general appeared before the public accounts committee. Here are some things I learned.

Much of the spending by the Aboriginal Affairs Secretariat is actually done through the Regional Development Corporation. However, during the shale gas protests in 2013, Aboriginal Affairs paid for a person retained by the Department of Public Safety to de-escalate tensions between the protesters, the RCMP and the community of Elsipogtog. In that instance, Public Safety failed to get much value for the money it spent from Aboriginal Affairs after violence flared.

The Department of Finance has been forced to put the liability for cleaning up three abandoned mining operations on our books. Why are we left holding the bag for the mess left by mining companies after they pulled out of New Brunswick? Finance could not say, but suggested the Department of Resource Development and Energy might have an answer.

Back in 2012, Finance launched an initiative to make the property tax system fairer, equitable and transparent. Yet today, the deputy minister couldn’t tell the committee whether those objectives had been achieved.

This year the federal government announced its intention to recover $2.6 billion by targeting offshore tax havens, but our Department of Finance officials told me they have no estimates of how much tax revenue New Brunswick has lost to offshore tax havens.

When the Department of Social Development officials appeared before our committee, they told me they aim to ensure assessments for seniors with disabilities such as dementia take no more than 30 days so they can qualify for nursing home care. The provincial average is three times that, clocking in at three months, and in some regions it has been known to take six months or longer. The deputy minister said the 30-day target may be unreasonable given the budget they have to work with.

When it comes to public housing, Social Development manages 153 buildings for seniors and 633 buildings for families who cannot afford to pay commercial rents. According to the deputy minister, the buildings are deteriorating because they haven’t had sufficient money to pay for proper maintenance and upgrades. Nor has the government built any new public housing for years. Meanwhile, the waiting list for public and subsidized housing reached 5,889 people in 2015. As a side note, the department’s community involvement program to improve the social environment for the seniors and families living in public housing was a meagre $50,000 for the entire province.

The Department of Public Safety which is increasingly responsible for enforcing many of the province’s laws, governing everything from liquor control to private eyes, spends $15 million a year on inspections and investigations. Apparently, the compliance rate for the laws they enforce is 65 per cent, yet, the department does not track the number of cases it refers for prosecution, nor does it hear back about the results of the court cases.

Public Safety funds an intelligence gathering service called the Criminal Intelligence Service of New Brunswick at a cost of $588,000. Yet its employees and activities are nowhere to be found on the department’s website or in its annual report, making it impossible to determine whether this is an effective use of public funds.

Based on what we heard at committee last week, we have ample material upon which to base recommendations to the legislative assembly.

David Coon is the MLA for Fredericton-South and leader of the Green Party of New Brunswick.