P.E.I. auditor general’s report finds spending, bookkeeping concerns despite strong economy
The province’s annual report from the auditor general on government finances, released Thursday, shows an economy that’s performing well despite several concerns about spending and reporting.
Darren Noonan, P.E.I.’s auditor general, said the positive news is that the economy is strong and the government is taking these reports seriously.
“In our followup work, we’ve seen a positive trend in our recommendations getting implemented,” said Noonan.
He outlined several concerns in the report, however, including the government using what are called special warrants too often for spending.
Spending trend ‘going in the wrong direction’
A special warrant — as the name suggests — is only to be used in unexpected, unforeseen circumstances.
For the fiscal year ending in March 2022, Noonan’s office found the government spent $163 million on special warrants — twice as much as during the previous fiscal year.
“It’s a trend that is going in the wrong direction, I think,” said Noonan.
“The Treasury Board policy says that special warrants are to be used as a last resort … sometimes it’s just to cover cost overruns within departments, which comes down to managing your financial resources.”
Lack of contracts
Another concern is a lack of formal contracts for grant money given to Holland College and UPEI — more than $100 million in total.
“So there are two big institutions, two extremely large funding agreements … that didn’t have Treasury Board approval or contracts,” said Noonan.
“You should have the conditions outlined because that way both parties to the agreement are aware of what the conditions are and what the money’s to be used for.”
The last such contract for the institutions’ grant money was signed in March 2021, said Noonan.
Another issue Noonan raised is the fact that the government hasn’t completed an environmental assessment on the former government garage site on Park Street in Charlottetown.
That site is now the home of a COVID-19 testing clinic and the Park Street Emergency Shelter units for those experiencing homelessness.
“[The government] acknowledges that there’s probably contamination on that property just based on what that property was formerly used for,” said Noonan.
“So the concern is that they do a phase two environmental site assessment and they find that there is contamination and that remedial work is required. And if remedial work is required, what does that do to what’s being done on that property now?”
More reports coming
Until a site assessment is done, said Noonan, there is no way to know the extent of any possible contamination or the cost of remediation.
“It could become a big expense, or bigger than you think it is. So disclosing that so readers of the financial statements are aware that there could be a potential expense in the future.”
Noonan also said 22 out of 25 reporting entities at the provincial level did not produce an annual financial report. And he’d like to see more details reported from agencies such as Atlantic Lottery and the P.E.I. Liquor Control Commission.
The auditor general said his office hopes to release six or seven other performance audit reports over the course of 2023.
“I’m looking forward to getting those done and get them out into the public,” he said.
Sri Lanka secures $3B IMF bailout to help salvage bankrupt economy – CBC.ca
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said Monday that its executive board has approved a nearly $3 billion US ($4.1 billion Cdn) bailout program for Sri Lanka over four years to help salvage the country’s bankrupt economy.
An IMF statement said about $333 million US ($455 million Cdn) of the funding will be disbursed immediately and the approval will also open up financial support from other institutions.
“Sri Lanka has been facing tremendous economic and social challenges with a severe recession amid high inflation, depleted reserves, an unsustainable public debt, and heightened financial sector vulnerabilities,” the IMF statement quoted managing director Kristalina Georgieva as saying.
“Institutions and governance frameworks require deep reforms. For Sri Lanka to overcome the crisis, swift and timely implementation of the EFF-supported program with strong ownership for the reforms is critical.”
The office of Sri Lanka’s president said the IMF approval will unlock financing of up to $7 billion ($9.6 billion Cdn) from the fund and other international multilateral financial institutions.
Earlier this month, the last hurdle for the approval was cleared when China joined Sri Lanka’s other creditors in providing debt restructuring assurances.
“From the very start, we committed to full transparency in all our discussions with financial institutions and with our creditors,” president Ranil Wickremesinghe said in a statement from his office. “I express my gratitude to the IMF and our international partners for their support as we look to get the economy back on track for the long term through prudent fiscal management and our ambitious reform agenda.”
Wickremesinghe said he has made some tough decisions to ensure stability, debt sustainability and to grow an inclusive and internationally attractive economy.
Sri Lanka increased income taxes sharply and removed electricity and fuel subsidies, fulfilling prerequisites of the IMF program. Authorities must now discuss with Sri Lanka’s creditors on how to restructure its debt.
“Having obtained specific and credible financing assurances from major official bilateral creditors, it is now important for the authorities and creditors to make swift progress towards restoring debt sustainability consistent with the IMF-supported program,” Georgieva said.
“The authorities’ commitments to transparently achieve a debt resolution, consistent with the program parameters and equitable burden sharing among creditors in a timely fashion, are welcome,” she said.
Sri Lanka announced last year that it is suspending repayment of its foreign debt amid a severe foreign currency crisis, because of a fall in tourism and export revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mega projects funded by Chinese loans that did not generate income and releasing foreign currency reserves to hold the exchange rates for a longer period.
The currency crisis created severe shortages of some foods, fuel, medicine and cooking gas leading to angry street protests that forced then-president Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign.
Since Wickremesinghe took over, he has managed to reduce shortages and ended hours-long daily power cuts. The Central Bank says its reserves have improved and the black market no longer controls the foreign currency trade.
However, Wickremesinghe’ s government is likely to face hostility from trade unions over his plans to privatize state ventures as part of his reform agenda and public resentment may increase if he fails to take action against the Rajapaksa family, who people believe were responsible for the economic crisis.
Wickremesinghe’s critics accuse him of shielding the Rajapaksa family, who still control a majority of lawmakers in Parliament, in return for their support for his presidency.
Australia Puts Policy Pause Back on the Table as Economy Slows – BNN Bloomberg
(Bloomberg) — Australia’s central bank will consider pausing its policy tightening cycle next month given interest-rate settings are already restrictive and the economic outlook remains uncertain, minutes of its March meeting showed.
The Reserve Bank delivered its 10th consecutive rate hike two weeks ago to take the cash rate to 3.6% as board members judged inflation in Australia is “too high” and the labor market “very tight,” minutes of the March 7 meeting showed Tuesday.
Even so, the RBA board returned to the question of standing pat during its discussions.
“Members agreed to reconsider the case for a pause at the following meeting, recognizing that pausing would allow additional time to reassess the outlook for the economy,” the minutes showed. ”At what point it will be appropriate to pause will be determined by data and the board’s assessment of the outlook.”
While the minutes are dated given the banking sector stress that has roiled financial markets across the world, they show Australian policymakers were already focused on economic uncertainties ranging from the outlook for household consumption to credit growth.
“Members noted that monetary policy was in restrictive territory and that the economic outlook was uncertain,” the minutes showed. “The outlook for consumption remained a key source of uncertainty.” Board members also discussed the “significant financial pressures” that some households are experiencing.
Overnight indexed swaps have swung significantly since the banking crisis in the US and Europe and now imply the RBA will stand pat at its April 4 meeting and then begin cutting in August. Money markets now signal that the global monetary tightening cycle is all but done.
All eyes will be on a number of major central bank meetings over the coming days, led by the Federal Reserve with its decision likely to influence the RBA’s call next month.
Assistant Governor Chris Kent this week sought to alleviate concerns the banking crisis will become systemic, maintaining Australian lenders are “unquestionably strong” with solid balance sheets and capital positions.
Australia has lagged international peers in the scale of its rate increases, reflecting Governor Philip Lowe’s efforts to bring the economy in for a soft landing. The minutes showed the RBA’s tightening bias remained intact however, with a monthly inflation indicator and retail sales data – due next week – gaining extra prominence.
The RBA’s rapid-fire rate hikes have created a political problem for Prime Minister Anthony Albanese as he tries to persuade a heavily indebted electorate grappling with rising living costs that the pain of increased borrowing costs is preferable to entrenched inflation.
The government will release its budget in May, which is likely to have some targeted cost relief measures, although Treasurer Jim Chalmers has said it will keep a tight leash on fiscal spending to avoid further fueling consumer prices.
©2023 Bloomberg L.P.
Lower taxes, more government spending: What might Quebec’s next budget include?
The province’s economy is currently doing better than many expected, so the Quebec government will have some wiggle room in drafting this year’s budget, set to be unveiled on Tuesday.
What does that mean? More Quebecers are employed with good jobs than some economists had forecast. Crucially, for Finance Minister Eric Girard’s budget math, that also means those people are paying more taxes and fewer people are relying on social safety net programs.
That is welcome news for a government that has foreshadowed both spending increases and tax relief in its upcoming budget — “having your cake and eating it too,” according to some economists and political analysts.
It’s a strategy economists usually warn against. When the economy is going well, they say, governments shouldn’t necessarily offer tax relief but should instead take advantage of increased tax revenues to pay down debt — which Quebec has a lot of, some of which is due to recent expensive COVID-19 and inflation relief plans.
But that isn’t what the budget is likely to show on Tuesday. As usual, the finance minister has been close-lipped about the contents of the documents, but Girard did say that the government will stick to the commitments it made during last year’s election campaign — which likely means more spending, not less, along with a tax cut that some are criticizing as untimely.
So, here’s what you can expect:
One controversial promise that the CAQ has made is a pledge to cut taxes by one per cent for the two lowest tax brackets.
If the government comes through on that promise, which Girard has suggested it will, that would save a taxpayer earning $55,000 a year $378, but it will save higher-income earners even more.
During the election, Legault said Quebecers making $80,000 a year would save $630 in taxes per year.
It’s a proposal that has some economists raising their eyebrows.
Nearly 35 per cent of Quebec’s population will not earn enough income to benefit from the tax break according to l’Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS).
“It would be an unfair tax cut because it would mainly favour taxpayers with higher incomes,” said Guillaume Hébert, a researcher with IRIS, in an interview.
The government has said the $2-billion measure would be paid for by the government reducing its payments to the Generations Fund, a rainy day fund.
That money, IRIS contends, would be better spent in the public sector, in the health or education system, for example.
The timing of the tax cuts, when the government is handling debt from COVID-19 relief measures and is promising to increase spending, is also causing concern.
“At some point, you want to make these promises, that’s fine,” said Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in economics at Concordia University, “but it has to be accompanied by government spending cuts elsewhere or higher taxes, not lower taxes.”
But that isn’t what most observers expect.
In the lead-up to the 2022 election, where the CAQ secured a second four-year mandate, François Legault’s party made lots of expensive promises — $29.6-billion worth.
Not all of those promises are expected to appear in this year’s budget, but spending increases are likely.
“I think that they will increase health-care spending quite significantly and I think education is a major priority,” said Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “So it’s a government that likes to be popular, right? [Legault] doesn’t like to bring bad news.”
It’s a combination, Béland said, of tax reductions and spending increases that appears to makes more sense as a political decision than an economic one.
It’s also a combination that would lead to a greater budget deficit — which happens when the government is spending more on programs than it receives from taxes.
But that deficit, Lander predicts, will be lower than expected – possibly around the $5-billion mark. A lower deficit than expected, however, deserves no praise because it is coming because of economic prosperity that the government did not engineer, he said.
“When a government tries to take credit for that and says that, you know, the deficit is smaller, they don’t deserve a pat on the back,” said Lander.
The smaller deficit, however, will allow them to couch the budget in optimistic language and a commitment to get back to budgetary equilibrium at some point down the line, Lander predicts.
“They’re gonna create the magic act of smaller deficit than expected on a path to balancing budget while at the same time cutting taxes and raising spending.”
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