Conservative governments love to tout their expertise as good fiscal managers – as long as it’s someone else’s money, and as long as you don’t look too closely at the details. Sometimes, there are no details at all.
During the unprecedented COVID pandemic, hundreds of millions of dollars have flowed into PEI from the federal government to help keep businesses afloat and support individuals through a range of programs and services. Using this injection of cash, PEI became one of five provinces to create large ‘unallocated funds’ – that is, contingency funds that can provide the government with wiggle room to make decisions as the situation evolves. On one hand this can help governments to be flexible and responsive. But it also means that the government does not have any checks and balances on how or if that money is spent, and no approved budget.
In fact, the recent CCPA Report ‘Still Picking Up the Tab’ states quite clearly “Large unallocated funds can often be considered poor budgeting practice, in that they provide no detail in advance to citizens as to how large amounts of money will be spent. In the worst-case scenario, unallocated funds can be a means of inflating the value of the crisis response while, in the end, being meant only to reduce the deficit.” (see page 15 of the report)
The $50 million COVID contingency fund included in the PEI government 2020/2021 spring budget was primarily meant for healthcare, childcare, and safe school reopening – all areas of the utmost urgency to Islanders. To date, there are no details on how, and if, any of those funds have been spent to help Islanders. This lack of a timely update and transparency is raising concerns and red flags.
Unspent funds in healthcare and education are unacceptable, especially when those funds are meant to alleviate the pressures of the COVID pandemic on some of the most vulnerable. While we may not have suffered like other provinces with COVID, we have still seen its impact on health care systems and workers, and on our education infrastructure, and on students.
For example we know there are at least six schools that need HVAC improvements for air circulation; we know that women are not re-entering the workforce in pre-COVID numbers; we know that healthcare workers are burnt out and exhausted.
Without details from the government on when, how and where these funds are being spent, it is totally fair to question the statements from the department of finance that actually everything is just fine. ‘Trust us’ does not equal transparency.
No one could have predicted what COVID would mean to Islanders, our healthcare or education systems, and especially small business. Without a doubt, the hundreds of millions of dollars transferred from the federal to provincial government have been critical to keeping us afloat through the past 18 months. But buckets of money doesn’t give the government a free pass to do what it likes with those dollars. The government is accountable to the people and their needs.
Islanders are hugely frustrated with the deteriorating state of our healthcare, and worried about kids returning to school as the Delta variant spreads. We need to know what the King government is doing with those unspent millions to address these immediate concerns – and paying down the deficit with a federal transfer meant to help Islanders is not an acceptable answer.