Leave budgets to the pros, not politicians

Provincial budget discussions a waste of time, or so Ponoka News reporter's column suggests.

There’s this thing about budgets that much of the public simply has yet to grasp.

All of them are basically estimates, guesses about what the government wants to earn and spend annually. And especially at the provincial and federal government levels, even those best guesstimates can vary so much that it isn’t even really worth trying to decipher the figures.

Why? Because much like technology these days, the numbers are out of date before they are even printed.

Which makes the two-night, waste of time, lets find out if Albertans agree with us, public engagement campaign by the Alberta government last week all the more of a fiasco.

Finance minister Joe Ceci and Premier Rachel Notley took questions in a pair of telephone town hall meetings in order to gauge the thoughts and ideas for the 2017-18 budget, due to come out next month.

Despite the ‘feel’ of the public forums, what it actually turned into was a platform for political posturing and letting Albertans know not to expect very much in the way of new or interesting announcements in the budget looming overhead.

In fact, several of the questions posed had absolutely nothing to do with the budget they were focused on effects of the carbon levy or rambled off into policy and philosophy subjects.

And even when the forum got something one could term budget related, the answer was more about what the government has already planned or has announced previously.

There was nothing new and no new ideas presented during the two evening events, leaving one to wonder if it was simply a public relations exercise just like the tour of Alberta Ceci made the past three months to meet with residents that were handpicked.

Then again, the whole premise of getting suggestions from regular Albertans is flawed. There are not many that can manage their own money on a budget, judging from the enormous personal debt and bankruptcy figures recently released, let alone figure out how to operate a budget that’s in the billions of dollars.

Which takes me to another budget topic that involving municipal councils.

Unless someone has specific training as an accountant, councillors and mayors even if they are business owners have a difficult time figuring out all of the ins and outs of a large budget.

And, considering the complexities involved with union contracts, asset management, depreciation of equipment along with the need for a certain number of basic services to be paid for no matter what, council members can dig deep into something they barely understand to find savings without hulking more of a tax burden on businesses and residents, but what’s the result?

Well, it’s like tossing them into the ocean with a leaky bucket and asking them to catch a fish you can go through the motions, but no one is quite sure if you’ll accomplish anything.

Which is part of why I question the task of letting politicians determine the budget figures for government operations.

By all means, let them decide what the spending priorities should be, have them go right at how much infrastructure work needs to be completed annually, how many employees to have and give them the freedom to vigorously question the civil service and administrative staff on the revenue and expense projections.

But once that’s done, and the numbers sent back for revision, have them approve it and get on with things. The numbers are the numbers, so figure out what can be done with what is there and move forward with the plan.

Because telephone town halls and day long meetings to nitpick on expenses in order to find $80,000 in a budget worth millions, is more about pandering to the public than actual budgeting.

But that is…just an observation.