Government watchdogs have budgets frozen for next year

New Brunswick's independent legislative watchdogs will have their budgets frozen in the 2015-16 fiscal year, despite pleas for more funds from some of them.

Request for additional funding for second audit of Atcon will be dealt with at later date

Auditor General Kim MacPherson and other independent legislature officers were told Wednesday their 2015-16 budgets will be frozen at current levels. (Jacques Poitras/CBC)

New Brunswick's independent legislative watchdogs will have their budgets frozen in the 2015-16 fiscal year, despite pleas for more funds from some of them.

Legislature Speaker Chris Collins made the announcement after a closed-door meeting of the all-party legislative administration committee, which sets the budgets of the legislative officers.

The decision is "in keeping with what the taxpayers of New Brunswick are looking for," Collins told reporters.

Ombudsman Charles Murray, one of the officers, said he was hoping for a small increase, but he acknowledged that was unlikely, given the Liberal government's push to balance the budget.

Murray said a freeze would limit his office's ability to fulfill its mandate.

"The budget determines what we're capable of doing," he said. "I recognize the province is in a tough financial situation and they have a tough decision to make."

Legislature Speaker Chris Collins says freezing the budgets of independent watchdogs is in keeping with what taxpayers want. (CBC)
Collins said one key request, by Auditor General Kim MacPherson for extra funding to conduct a second audit of the Atcon affair, will be considered at a later date.

Collins said that's because MacPherson did not have a set figure for the extra funds at Wednesday's meeting.

"We need to have a detailed request so we know specifically what monies are available to do that," he said.

2nd Atcon audit still possible

MacPherson announced in December, in front of a different committee of MLAs, that she would take on a second Atcon audit.

Her first audit blasted how the previous Liberal government of Shawn Graham ignored civil service advice and approved loan guarantees to the Atcon group that eventually cost taxpayers about $70 million.

It also criticized the government for giving up the province's security on the loans, which means taxpayers rank behind Atcon's bank and other creditors in recouping any money from its bankruptcy.

But MacPherson said in December there are still questions about how Atcon spent the money it was able to borrow thanks to the province, and she planned to conduct a second audit — with or without approval for the extra funding to pay for it.

On Wednesday, she would not tell reporters what she discussed with the committee.

"I made my budget presentation, I have respect for the process, and we'll all have to wait for budget day to see what the decision is," she said.

Collins suggested, however, that because the auditor general will have to return to the committee with a more detailed request for the extra money, that decision won't be made in time for the provincial budget on Feb. 2.
Ombudsman Charles Murray says a budget freeze will limit what his office can accomplish in the next year. (CBC)

There's also a review underway of whether the nine legislative officer positions and their offices should be merged to save money.

That review hasn't been finished yet. Collins says it's likely the provincial budget Feb. 2 will fund the existing offices, with changes possible midway through the fiscal year if the review recommends mergers.

"If there are cost savings found by anything that comes as a result of that study, that can affect the budget going forward, and changes can be made to the budget going forward," he said.

Closed-door meeting

Wednesday's meeting took place behind closed doors. While most legislative committee sessions are public, the Legislative Administration Committee always meets in secret.

LAC oversees the functioning of the legislature itself, and most similar bodies across Canada also meet in secret. Nova Scotia's meets in public.

"I certainly believe LAC should be open to the public," said Opposition Progressive Conservative MLA Brian Macdonald, who is considering running for his party's leadership.

Information commissioner Anne Bertrand, one of the independent officers who presented her budget request on Wednesday, said she likes the LAC process. "I think it's fine the way it is."

"But I think it's fair ball for people to know that I have a budget of just under $600,000, and I'm defending what I do with it."

About the Author

Jacques Poitras

Provincial Affairs reporter

Jacques Poitras has been CBC's provincial affairs reporter in New Brunswick since 2000. Raised in Moncton, he also produces the CBC political podcast Spin Reduxit.


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