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$617 Million in Budget Cuts, But Details Withheld
PC Opposition Finance critic Tony Wakeham said multiple information requests by the Official Opposition have been rejected by the Ball government.
Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Office of the Official Opposition
For Immediate Release

St. John’s, NL (November 19, 2019) – PC Opposition Finance critic Tony Wakeham said multiple information requests by the Official Opposition – including two very recent appeals to the province’s most senior civil servant – have been rejected by the Ball government, which is withholding the details of its plans to cut $617 million from the provincial budget, beginning as early as March 2020.

The cuts amount to the equivalent of 1,560 public service jobs which, if applied evenly across government, would be reflected in cuts of $294 million to health, $81 million to education, $60 million to post-secondary institutions, $21 million to income support, and $30 million to municipalities.

Rather than promise to safeguard health and education, the Liberals have actually promised to target boards, which make up 60 per cent of the provincial budget and include the regional health authorities and the school boards.

Rather than plan ahead and spread the efficiencies over the maximum period of time, the Liberals actually drove up spending during the 2019 election year, meaning the pain they intend to impose in 2020, 2021 and 2022 will be even greater.

On June 13, the Finance Minister denied the cuts, saying the province is budgeting year to year, not multi-year.

But the Premier stated on April 17: “We have put in place a fiscal framework that we will meet. This province will be back to surplus in 2022-23.” The Premier reiterated on June 25: “we are here today with discipline; we've put in place a seven-year forecast to return to balance or return to surplus within our province.”

Documents obtained by the Official Opposition also indicate a multi-year plan does indeed exist.

However, the Premier, the Finance Minister and – most recently – the provincial’s Clerk of the Executive Council have refused to let the Opposition or the public see the details making up the $617 million.

“The documents they’re hiding show how much they intend to cut – and possibly which positions and services are on the block – in budgets 2020, 2021 and 2022. Those documents weren’t released with the 2019 budget and they likely won’t be released with the coming fall fiscal update either.”

“The Cabinet has information about cuts that they’re not telling people. The 2020 budget is being prepared behind closed doors right now, and significant cuts are on the agenda. People have a right to know what’s on the chopping block so they can have meaningful input on those choices. But the Ball Liberals have shut the people out.”

Contacts:
Bradley Russell
Director of Policy and Research
(p) 1.709.729.3668
BradleyRussell@gov.nl.ca

-30-

Backgrounder

Attached as PDFs are the following four letters, which are also re-typed below:
· September 27 letter – Wakeham to Clerk Elizabeth Day
· October 3 letter – Day to Wakeham
· October 18 letter – Wakeham to Day
· November 1 letter – Day to Wakeham

September 27 letter – Wakeham to Clerk Elizabeth Day

September 27, 2019

Ms Elizabeth Day
Clerk of the Executive Council
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
ElizabethDay@gov.nl.ca

Dear Ms Day:

The Official Opposition has filed requests under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 2015, with each government department requesting: “Please provide details on the 5 year budget forecast or multi-year fiscal framework maintained in Excel by the Department.” In each case, we have been refused access under Sections 27.(1)(h) and 27.(2)(a) of the Act on the argument that the information requested is a “cabinet record” and the head of a public body shall refuse to disclose to an applicant a cabinet record.

There is, however, another provision of the ATIPPA legislation, Section 27.(3), which states: “Notwithstanding subsection (2), the Clerk of the Executive Council may disclose a cabinet record or information that would reveal the substance of deliberations of Cabinet where the Clerk is satisfied that the public interest in the disclosure of the information outweighs the reason for the exception.”

The multi-year fiscal framework is the foundation for the government’s multi-year fiscal forecasting. High level figures have been provided in the province’s annual budgetary documents but the details underpinning these figures are not available. Without the context of the fiscal framework and the detailed figures, the public cannot be assured that the government has, and is operating according to, a credible and tenable long-term fiscal plan. It is therefore in the public interest that the multi-year fiscal framework be released. The public interest in the disclosure of this information outweighs the reason for the exception.

The Official Opposition therefore requests that you exercise your legislative authority as Clerk under Section 27.(3) of the Act by disclosing the information the Official Opposition has requested of the government departments.

Yours sincerely,
Tony Wakeham
MHA Stephenville – Port au Port
Critic for Finance

October 3 letter – Day to Wakeham

October 3, 2019

Tony Wakeham
MHA Stephenville – Port au Port
Office of the Official Opposition
5th Floor, East Block, Confederation Building
St. John’s, NL A1B 4J6

Dear Mr. Wakeham,

This is in response to your correspondence of September 27, 2019, wherein you requested that I exercise my authority under subsection 27(3) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 2015 (the Act), to release records previously withheld in accordance with the Cabinet confidences section of the Act.

As you noted, your letter pertains to an Access to Information request submitted to each government department requesting the following:

“Please provide details on the 5 year budget forecast or multi-year fiscal framework maintained in excel by the Department.”

The information your office is seeking is maintained for the purpose of informing the development of the annual provincial budget. It provides detailed information on Government’s fiscal framework which is used by the Department of Finance to monitor budgetary decisions, determine cash and accrual impacts on the fiscal framework should adjustments be required and to inform Cabinet accordingly for the next annual budget decision-making process. The conclusion of the annual budget process is the tabling of the Estimates in the House of Assembly, in according with the Financial Administration Act, and the tabling of a multi-year fiscal forecast, in accordance with the Transparency and Accountability Act. These disclosures are complimented by the mid-year Fiscal Update and the tabling of the Public Accounts of the Province annually. These processes ensure that the residents of the Province, our stakeholders, as well as the Province’s lenders and bond rating agencies, are well informed on the fiscal and economic performance of the Province as well as the prudent fiscal planning that is occurring.

I can confirm that prior to the response to the above-noted Access to Information requests and since receipt of your September 27, 2019 correspondence, I have carefully examined the records that have been withheld and I am satisfied that disclosure in accordance with subsection 27(3) of the Act is not required.

Sincerely,
Elizabeth Day

October 18 letter – Wakeham to Day

October 18, 2019

Ms Elizabeth Day
Clerk of the Executive Council
Government of Newfoundland and Labrador
ElizabethDay@gov.nl.ca

Dear Ms. Day:

Thank you for your response dated October 3, 2019. The purpose of this further submission is to request that you reconsider your exercise of discretion under s.27(3) of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 2015, based on new evidence and considerations.

In your response, you outlined several processes that in your opinion would “ensure that the residents of the Province, our stakeholders, as well as the Province’s lenders and bond rating agencies, are well informed on the fiscal and economic performance as well as the prudent fiscal planning that is occurring.” While these processes contribute to disclosure and accountability, they do not provide the details supporting the fiscal forecast as presented in the 2019/20 Budget.

It was our expectation that these details would have been contained in each government department’s five year budget forecast or multi-year fiscal framework. This is the reason we filed requests under the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 2015. As you know, we were refused access to this detail on the argument that the information requested exists but is a “cabinet record”. We subsequently requested that you exercise your legislative authority as Clerk of the Executive Council on the basis that disclosure of this information is in the public interest.

The fiscal forecast presented in 2019/20 budget showed a plan to return to surplus by 2022/23 with high-level revenue and expenditures numbers disclosed. In this forecast, expenditures are projected to decrease by $617 million by 2022/23. An expenditure reduction of this magnitude is significant. Although we are provided a precise number, we are not permitted access to the specific assumptions or details on a department by department basis that support the expenditure reduction of $617 million, on the basis that it would reveal the substance of Cabinet deliberations.

The disclosure of this detail would provide critical information to assess the nature of the forecasted changes and credibility of the fiscal plan to return to surplus by 2022/23. While other disclosures exist, as you pointed out in your letter, there is no disclosure of the specific details. In our opinion, this information is of significant public interest given the magnitude of the fiscal challenge ahead of this province. Our view is further supported by the intense public concern expressed by various public bodies, bond-rating agencies, business community, press and others.

The Auditor General has raised concerns that the province’s net debt will be “a significant financial burden attributed to each and every Newfoundlander and Labradorian” and that “continued emphasis on sustainably reducing the Province’s per capita spending will remain important.” The bond-rating agency, Moody's, has said that “the province's budget path relies on expenditures falling 7.3% between 2019/20 and 2022/23, which is a highly ambitious target for a Canadian province”. Others have raised significant concerns about the fiscal sustainability of our province with recent comments indicating that “Newfoundland and Labrador is at a crossroads” and that the province is on “a dangerous collision course with financial catastrophe.” These comments are just a few of the many public comments that have been raised about the financial situation of the province, which is evidence of deep public interest and concern about the credibility of the fiscal plan, the evaluation of which requires access to the details.

Further justification that the details of the fiscal plan should be disclosed was evident when comments were made earlier this fall by the Premier and the Minister of Finance regarding the achievability of the fiscal plan to return to surplus. Despite the budget being passed less than four months ago, the Premier said in late September that “…right now, it’s too early to tell.” Further, this was the same fiscal plan on which the government ran and was re-elected only months ago. The release of the details supporting this fiscal plan is essential to maintaining public confidence in the workings of democratic institutions. Once again, we are of the opinion that disclosure of the details of the fiscal plan is in the public interest.

Section 27.(3), which states: “Notwithstanding subsection (2), the Clerk of the Executive Council may disclose a cabinet record or information that would reveal the substance of deliberations of Cabinet where the Clerk is satisfied that the public interest in the disclosure of the information outweighs the reason for the exception.” You have indicated that you are satisfied that disclosure of the details of the fiscal forecast plan is not in the public interest, yet the detailed information exists as a “cabinet record” but only the high level numbers are publicly reported.

While you outline the disclosure processes that in your opinion ensure residents “are well informed on the fiscal and economic performance as well as the prudent fiscal planning that is occurring”, these disclosure processes do not provide sufficient information to assess the credibility of the fiscal forecast to return to surplus by 2022/23. Therefore, in our submission, the public is not sufficiently informed as to the details of the fiscal forecast and the test that “the public interest outweighs” the reason for non-disclosure is met.

It is clear from the permissive language of s.27(3) (“may disclose”) and from the balancing task imposed, that the exercise of your authority under the section is in the nature of a discretion, which can be revisited on the basis of new evidence and considerations. We respectfully ask that you reconsider the exercise of your discretion under s.27(3) in light of the further considerations identified in this request for reconsideration, and we look forward to your detailed reasons for the outcome.

Yours sincerely
Tony Wakeham, MHA Stephenville-Port au Port
Critic for Finance

November 1 letter – Day to Wakeham

November 1, 2019

Tony Wakeham
MHA Stephenville – Port au Port
Office of the Official Opposition
5th Floor, East Block, Confederation Building
St. John’s, NL A1B 4J6

Dear Mr. Wakeham:

This is in response to your correspondence of October 18, 2019 wherein you requested that I reconsider my decision to not grant access to records previously withheld under the Cabinet confidences section of the Access to Information and Protection of Privacy Act, 2015.

Further to my correspondence of October 3, 2019, I have thoroughly considered the additional information you provided and wish to advise that I remain satisfied that the disclosure of Cabinet records, as you requested, pursuant to subsection 27(3) is not warranted. Given the nature of the substance of deliberations contained in the records you have requested, the annual budget planning process and the other accountability measures outlined in my previous correspondence, I am satisfied that my discretionary authority does not outweigh the reason for the Cabinet confidence exception.

Sincerely,
Elizabeth Day

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