Quebec budget review proposes $2.3B in government program cuts

Opposition parties and industry groups say budget cuts proposed by the Robillard commission go too far and may compromise the province's ability to serve its population's needs.

Daycare, international student tuition, ambulance services also part of proposed budget cuts

Lucienne Robillard is the head of the province's budget review committee. She proposed upwards of $2.3 billion of cuts to Quebec's government programs. (Radio-Canada)

Opposition parties and industry groups say budget cuts proposed by the Robillard commission go too far and may compromise the province's ability to serve its population's needs. 

The budget review commission, led by Lucienne Robillard, released its proposal on Sunday for widespread cuts to multiple government programs in an effort to erase the government deficit by 2016.

If fully implemented, the cuts the commission proposed would save between $2.1 billion and $2.3 billion.

Premier Philippe Couillard's Liberal government has estimated $3.2 billion in reductions will be required to eliminate the deficit by next year.

The commission's final report is due in June 2015.

Agricultural sector faces deep cuts

Quebec recently announced $300 million in cuts to municipalities, but the commission argues there is a need for further cuts and says the current funding model isn't sustainable. Municipalities received more than $3.5 billion in the form of transfer payments in 2014-2015.

Financial support for Quebec's agricultural sector is estimated at $1 billion annually in public funds. (CBC)

The commission proposed changes aimed at keeping down municipal spending and containing the wage increases of municipal employees. It also proposed tax increases on certain services to make up for the shortfall.

The commission also recommended major cuts to agricultural funding, including the elimination of a government program guaranteeing income levels, at a savings of $300 million.

It noted the financial assistance provided to Quebec farmers is higher than elsewhere in Canada and in other developed countries, and suggested a review of these programs. Financial support for Quebec's agricultural sector is estimated at $1 billion annually in public funds.

Robillard commission's report not popular

Coalition Avenir Québec MNA Claude Surprenant said the government should look at its own spending before cutting services and programs for citizens.

"We feel the government has to evaluate its own operations. There is lots of money to save in its own operations, before asking citizens to pour more money into the system," Suprenant said.

Daniel Boyer, the president of the FTQ, a union-federation for Quebec labourers, said the government should reject the commission’s recommendations, calling them nothing but "a report for a government that does not like the State."

Claude Surprenant of the Coalition Avenir Québec says the government could trim a lot of fat in its own operations before reaching into the pockets of Quebecers. (CBC)

Boyer said it was necessary to take a serious look at the consequences the cuts would have on public services and social programs.

He said the Liberal government had a responsibility to establish a social dialogue with Quebecers about the real effects of the cuts.

The Union of Quebec Municipalities also reacted to the Robillard commission’s recommendations.

President Suzanne Roy said the commission took the easy route by, as she put it, "literally shovelling the State’s deficit onto the municipalities, and this, without first conducting a thorough analysis of government management, the causes of the lack of control in public spending and the real responsibilities of Quebec municipalities."

Quebec’s farmers were also upset by some of the Robillard commission’s recommendations.

The province’s association of agricultural producers (UPA) denounced the cut to an insurance program, adding that it felt the commission failed to look at the complexities of farmers’ realities.

UPA president Marcel Groleau said he anticipated that lamb and beef production would likely stop in Quebec.

Couillard may not follow recommendations

File photo: Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard speaks on November 19, 2014 at the legislature in Quebec City. (Jacques Boissinot/CP)

It remains to be seen whether Couillard will choose to follow the recommendations.

Couillard has already chosen to go his own way when it comes to changes to the daycare system.

The commission had recommended to raise fees from $7.25 to $35 per day, with tax deductions available at the provincial and federal level to offset the hike.

But Couillard opted for a different formula, considered to be more politically acceptable, with a sliding-scale model based on parental income, topping out at $20 per day.

In addition, the commission will recommend the government reassess its promise to create 30,000 new day care spots and, in the health-care sector, consider an increase in ambulance fees. It will also suggest keeping closer tabs on ministerial budgets.

Budget cut breakdown

The head of the budget-review committee Lucienne Robillard, also a former Liberal cabinet minister, listed her recommendations on Sunday.

The recommendations include:

Municipalities — $1.3 billion in savings

  • Cut provincial transfers to municipalities by $1.3 billion and require they better control spending.

Agriculture — $300 million in savings

  • Cut $300 million from agricultural support programs, particularly by eliminating the income stabilization insurance program.

Daycare — $378 million in savings

  • Subsidized daycare should be hiked to private daycare rates, i.e. $35 a day. This would allow for the maximization of tax credits, resulting in cost under $20 a day. (The Liberal government has already said no to this idea.)
  • According to Robillard, absenteeism in the subsidized daycare system is a big problem. As a result she recommended basing subsidies on actual attendance rather than the number of children registered at the daycare centres.
  • Postpone the creation of new daycare spaces until current ones are maximized.
  • Change the ratio from one educator to eight children, to one educator to 10 children.

Education — $51.3 million to $151.6 million in savings

  • Bring in a quota system to regulate the number of international students benefiting from tuition breaks.
  • Reduce subsidies to the province's private school system.

Ambulance services — $91.8 million and $119.9 million in savings

  • Increase ambulance transport fees from $125 to $174 plus raise price per kilometre from $1.75 to $2.95.
  • People aged 65 and over who aren’t on guaranteed income supplement should pay ambulance fees.

Ministers’ discretionary budgets — $14.4 million in savings

  • Abolish discretionary budgets.
  • Ministers would instead guide applicants to other government programs that could apply to their situation.

Volunteer support program — $10.4 million in savings

  • Abolish the program.
  • Government would instead guide applicants to other government programs that could apply to their situation.

Annual pay for the commission's president, ex-Liberal cabinet minister Lucienne Robillard, as well as four expert consultants is estimated to total $1.03 million.

Robillard's annual salary is set at $265,000, which breaks down as $1,100 per day for eight hours work over 240 days.

The salary for each of the four experts is set at $192,500, or $800 per day.

With additional reporting by The Canadian Press


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