A fracas between the Gallant government and Auditor General Kim MacPherson over her budget — the second controversy between the two to go public in a week — is casting a new light on how poorly funded the independent office has become in New Brunswick.
It's something the public has shown little interest in over the years, but political scientist J.P. Lewis says it's the kind of issue that needs a large and sustained controversy to garner attention.
"I'm not saying ... New Brunswickers aren't concerned with the ethics of government, but voters are normally concerned about bread and butter issues," said Lewis.
- Auditor general slams government accounting claims once again
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"These institutional fights take a lot more to get momentum behind them."
MacPherson has become defiant over the Gallant government's refusal to increase her office's budget this year, so she can undertake an in-depth audit of the $70 million in public money lost during the 2010 bankruptcy of Atcon construction in Miramichi.
She declined to take no for an answer and began the work anyway. This summer she informed Legislature officials her office would likely overspend this year by $400,000 — an issue made public this week.
Moncton Liberal MLA Chris Collins, who oversees MacPherson's budget as Speaker of the Legislature, is not inclined to look the other way.
"I am concerned this is taking place. I am also concerned that it's being deliberate and it sets a bad example for the other commissioners who all want more money too," said Collins.
"We can't have a situation where a commissioner or department intentionally comes in substantially over budget, especially the auditor general."
Overspending unusual for AG
Overspending is unusual for MacPherson, who has been tight with money since taking the auditor general job in late 2010.
According to the provinces financial statements, she completed all work during each of her first five years under budget, saving government a combined $426,900. That's slightly more than she proposes to overspend this year.
MacPherson has also been more frugal than her predecessor Michael Ferguson, who is now the federal auditor general.
He went over budget in each of his last three full years as New Brunswick's auditor general by a combined $1.2 million.
MacPherson was clear with MLAs last December that the Atcon audit could not be performed inside her normal budget and she would not put it off no matter their decision.
"I am not asking permission," she said.
"I'm an accountant. It goes against nature to go over budget. I don't want to be in this position but I'm weighing off that in order to fulfill the mandate to do what is required of me as auditor general. I have to do this work."
MacPherson's entire budget to investigate government spending in New Brunswick is $2.1 million.
That's well below what offices receive in other smaller provinces, such as Nova Scotia ($3.8 million), Newfoundland and Labrador ($3.9 million), Manitoba ($7.1 million) and Saskatchewan ($8.8 million) to perform the same job.
Resources available to MacPherson have barely moved in the last four years — suffering a one-per-cent budget cut in 2013 followed by freezes in 2014 and 2015 and a modest 1.5-per-cent increase this year.
Her office has nearly sunk to the same level of funding as P.E.I.'s auditor general ($2 million) even though the New Brunswick government is five times larger.
But Collins said that's not an excuse to defy a decision of government and the Legislature.
"All four commissions work within very small budgets and that hasn't changed." said Collins.
"These are frozen budgets that have existed for sometime so our officers should be able to manage within those budgets."
The Atcon audit is potentially embarrassing to several Gallant cabinet ministers who were members of the previous Shawn Graham government, which lost the $70 million in taxpayer money.
Work within the budget
MacPherson's request for more funds to investigate that loss was quickly denied in the Legislature last winter by then finance minister Roger Melanson and rejected by the Legislature committee MacPherson reports to, which is dominated 7-3 by Liberal members.
"She has a budget and she will have to work within that budget," Melanson said at the time.
MacPherson, who last week sparred with the Gallant government over its budgeting and book keeping practices, has shown no signs of backing down from either fight.
UNB's Lewis said it's hard not to be impressed by her.
"I think it's good. I think it's good we have strong independent officers in a system where it's easy for majority governments to ramrod through the agenda that they want," he said.