Q57. If a budget is introduced, can the government call an election before the budget vote?

An election can be called before a budget is passed

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A57. The answer is yes—there can be an election before a budget vote. It is up to the premier to decide when to call an election.

In the spring of 2017, there was much speculation about whether the McNeil government would call an election shortly after introducing a budget on Thursday, April 27th. In fact, a general election was called three days after the budget was introduced. Election day was May 30, 2017.

In 2006, the Progressive Conservative government of Rodney MacDonald introduced a budget and then called an election. In 2009, the MacDonald government was defeated on a confidence vote before the budget could be put to a vote.

If there is a change of government before a budget is approved, the new government will typically wait until the fall sitting of the legislature to introduce a budget. The machinery of government can continue to operate for quite a long time without an approved budget.

 

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

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.

Occasionally, an election will interfere with the introduction and/or the passage of a budget in the spring sitting. When that happens—as it did in 1999, 2006 and 2017—the budget will be introduced either in a special post-election sitting, or in the regular fall sitting.

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 finance minister and the MLA for the constituency of Colchester North. There are four other ministers on the TPB (Labi Kasoulis, Mark Furey, Kelly Regan, and Iain Rankin) and one MLA who is not a minister (Keith Irving).

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.

 

Q46. What is the process for approving a budget?

A budget never changes once it’s presented to the House of Assembly

A46. The process by which the House of Assembly debates and votes on the annual budget is different from the five-step law-making process.

For you, the citizen, the most important thing to know is that the budget never changes after the finance minister presents the budget to the House of Assembly on Budget Day. If you want to have any impact on the budget, you need to get busy well before Budget Day. I have written a separate post with some tips on how to do that.

On Budget Day, the budget documents are made available in PDF format on the government website. That is usually the first chance citizens to have to see what is in the budget.

Reporters, the opposition parties and some non-government organizations get an advance look at the budget on Budget Day, starting 4-5 hours before the finance minister delivers the budget speech. This is humorously referred to as “the lock-up”, because everyone who takes part is not allowed to leave the room, and is not allowed to communicate with anyone outside the room, until the budget speech starts.

After the finance minister’s budget speech is over, the Opposition finance critic makes a reply of 10-15 minutes. The budget is then referred to “the Committee on Estimates”, but that committee doesn’t begin its work until the following day.

The budget discussion is sometimes referred to as “the Supply debate”. Whenever you hear the word “Supply” or “Estimates”, just translate it as “budget”. It means the same thing.

To discuss the budget, the House divides itself in two. There are four main things you need to know:

  1. Budget discussions are carried on simultaneously in the legislative chamber and in the Red Room of Province House. Citizens are welcome to attend one or the other, but only the proceedings in the main chamber are broadcast on television. The transcript (Hansard) of the budget discussions is not published. If you want to know precise details of what is happening in the budget debate, you have to watch.
  2. The Opposition picks five ministers whose budgets will be discussed in the main chamber, and the order in which they will be discussed. The budgets of all other ministers are discussed in the Red Room, alphabetically by department.
  3. Each minister may bring two staff members with them to help answer questions. This is one of the very rare occasions when someone who is not an MLA is allowed on the floor of the House. Even so, the staff members do not answer questions directly, but can only whisper advice to the minister. Only the minister can speak into the microphone.
  4. There is a time limit of forty hours on each side (legislative chamber and Red Room), and a further time limit of four hours each day. That means the budget debate lasts ten working days.

When the budget discussion is finished, there is a vote. The budget vote is a confidence vote. If the budget is defeated, the government “falls” and there must be an election. That last happened in Nova Scotia in 1999. Something similar happened in 2009, but technically the government fell on another vote, not the budget vote.

It’s important to note that MLAs get one vote (Yes or No) to the entire budget. They do not get to support one part of the budget, and oppose another part. There is no line-by-line voting. It’s either Yes to the whole thing, or No to the whole thing. Just because an MLA votes Yes to a budget doesn’t mean they like everything in it, and just because an MLA votes No to a budget doesn’t mean they’re opposed to everything in it. Essentially the vote is “Do I want this government to continue?”

A budget never changes between Budget Day and the day of the budget vote. There was even one year where I found an error in the budget, and the government acknowledged the error, but still wouldn’t change the documents. You might wonder: why bother with all the budget discussion if nothing ever changes?

The purpose of the budget discussion is to find out exactly what the numbers mean. The budget documents are mostly stated in dollar figures. The purpose of the budget discussion is to dig under the numbers to see what they really mean, in terms of new programs being established, and old programs being eliminated or modified. That’s the sort of thing MLAs ask questions about. However, it is also true that the budget debate can seem long and very boring, if the MLAs who are asking questions don’t really understand the operations of the department whose minister they are questioning, or if the MLAs are asking questions only about details of government operations in their own constituency.

In summary: If you, the citizen, wish to have an impact on the budget, you need to get busy well before Budget Day. Once the budget is presented to the House of Assembly, it’s too late.

Q45. What is the budget?

A45. The budget is the set of documents in which the government states how much money it is planning to spend, and how revenue it is planning to receive, during the fiscal year.

I’ve written separate posts about how a budget moves through the House of Assembly and tips on how a citizen can have an impact on the budget.

Delivery of the budget is one of the most important events in the legislative calendar. The budget is very important for two reasons:

  1. It is the most complete statement MLAs receive of the government’s plans and priorities for the next year.
  2. It is the only guaranteed confidence vote each year. If the budget is defeated, the government “falls” and there must be an election. The last time that happened in Nova Scotia was 1999.

The budget is delivered in the spring sitting of the House of Assembly, usually around the end of March or the beginning of April. (Very occasionally it is presented at another time, but only when an election has prevented a budget from being introduced or voted upon in the spring sitting.)

The budget package consists of the following documents:

  1. The budget speech by the finance minister.
  2. A book called the Estimates, which include detailed revenue and expenditure estimates.
  3. Another book called the Supplementary Estimates, which are like the Estimates but with even more detail.
  4. Business plans for government departments and agencies.
  5. Any other summaries or news releases the government chooses to include.

In recent years, very few copies of the budget documents are actually printed. PDF versions of all the documents are available on-line on the government website on budget day, as soon as the finance minister begins the budget speech.

Strictly speaking, the budget also includes a bill called the Financial Measures Act (FMA). The FMA makes any statutory amendments made necessary by the budget. For example, if there is a change to income tax in the budget, the FMA will include an amendment to the Income Tax Act. The FMA is introduced roughly one week after the budget.

The budget is always for one “fiscal year”, which is different from the calendar year. A fiscal year is the 12-month period beginning on April 1st each year. For example, the 2017-18 fiscal year begins on April 1, 2017, and ends on March 31, 2018. Don’t ask me why they do it this way. It’s confusing for most citizens, but many corporations and all governments have a fiscal year different from the calendar year. It’s an important part of the lingo that you just have to get used to.