Q47. Do you have any advice on how a citizen can have an impact on the budget?

The earlier a citizen gets involved in the budget process, the better

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A47. It takes months to put together the annual budget. If you, as a citizen, want to have an impact on what’s in it, you have to get involved early. If you wait until Budget Day, it’s too late—the budget never changes after it’s introduced.

The annual budget is introduced early in the spring sitting of the House of Assembly. That’s typically at the end of March or beginning of April. Civil servants and politicians start building the budget back in the fall. By three weeks before Budget Day, all important decisions have been made. Your window of opportunity, then, is September to early March.

The budget-building process is overseen by the Treasury & Policy Board (TPB) for spending, and the Department of Finance for revenue.

TPB is a committee of the Cabinet. It has its own staff, whose offices are in One Government Place. TPB staff are separate from departmental staff. For a civil servant, it is quite prestigious to work at TPB.

The current chair of TPB is Karen Casey, who is the education minister and the MLA for the constituency of Colchester North. There are five other ministers (Whalen, Samson, Delorey, Kasoulis and Furey).

Most citizens have never heard of TPB, and have no idea what it does. And yet it is by far the most important unit of government when it comes to making budget decisions. A citizen who wants to have an impact on the budget needs to be familiar with how TPB works, who its members are, and who is on staff.

In the fall of each year, the TPB sends out a call to government departments and agencies for budget submissions for the next fiscal year. (The fiscal year begins on April 1st.)  The call includes any broad guidelines. For example, the call might say something like “overall budgets for next fiscal year cannot go up by more than 1.0% over the current fiscal year” or “prepare two budgets, one with no increase over the current fiscal year and one with a 5% reduction.”

It is at this early stage that you, the citizen, can have the most impact on a budget. The department or agency will put together its proposed budget for consideration by TPB. If an existing program is to be maintained, changed or eliminated, or if a new program is to be introduced, this is when the decisions are made (subject always to TPB approval). To have an impact, you will have to be in touch with senior management of the department or agency. If you don’t know who to contact, I would suggest enlisting an MLA (either your own MLA or another sympathetic MLA) as a guide and champion.

You are going to have more of an impact if you can demonstrate knowledge of the subject, and (especially) an understanding of the financial implications of what’s being requested. You have to do your homework.

Once the budget is introduced in the House of Assembly, it’s too late to make any changes. At that point, you can seek information from departmental officials, or perhaps ask an opposition MLA to ask certain questions during the budget debate.  Those are limited options.

If you don’t get what you’re hoping for in this year’s budget, there’s always next year, because the process starts all over again in the fall. Keep working. Be persistent. Persistence is the most powerful force in politics.

 

Author: Graham Steele

A former MLA in Nova Scotia, currently Professor of Business Law in the Rowe School of Business at Dalhousie University

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