Behind the budget

Behind the budget

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Budgeting isn’t easy for most, but budgeting on behalf of a province is exponentially more complicated than a standard budgeting process. The Nova Scotia government presents a budget each year, but there is no one start date on which people come together to begin laying it out. Instead, it’s a process that involves hundreds of people across multiple levels, with countless components that add up throughout the year to ultimately filter down a vast amount of information into a distilled version for the province’s Department of Finance and Treasury Board to analyse and decide from there where to allocate its resources.

Department of Finance and Treasury Board Deputy Minister Byron Rafuse says this decision confirms what the government’s priorities are and how it will deliver on them — in other words, it’s a big deal.

“A budget, in government terms, is a policy statement about the direction of government on what it wants to provide to citizens. It’s a reflection of decisions the government has made on what its priorities are and where it wants to allocate resources,” he says.

Estimating revenue from data

Rafuse says planning for the budget each year actually starts years ahead, as decisions made and financials allocated in previous budgets impact future years. Rather than having a single point of start, Rafuse says past budgets and their related financials are all factored in before the annual paper process picks up for the operating budget in late summer and for the capital budget in early fall. The capital budget is an important part of the process, but it’s the operating budget that Rafuse says is most synonymous with the annual budgetary process that comes to mind for the public.

“The operating budget is the cost of running our programs and services offered in that year [and a] recognition of the cost of government that period, whereas the capital budget plans spending on long-term projects,” he says.

Rafuse says there are two main considerations when preparing the budget: the government’s priorities and its commitments — more specifically an analysis of what they want to do and have said they are going to do. The ability to afford this is determined by the province’s revenue estimates, which is calculated to determine how much money it has to spend. Such revenue estimates are based on what the government extracts from economic activity in the province through taxes, as well as what it receives from federal government transfers.

And calculating the government’s economic activity and resulting revenue is a process in and of itself, according to Lilani Kumaranayake, Executive Director of Fiscal Policy, Economics and Budgetary Planning at the Nova Scotia Finance and Treasury Board. She says that unlike a traditional business basing revenue off sales or other similar income its generated, the government bases its revenue on estimates calculated from a model called an economic forecast, combined with past tax data.

“We take the latest tax data we’ve received — 18 months to two years earlier — and then try and estimate it. We [do this] by understanding where the economy is and how it will grow — this is an economic forecast — and adding the economic forecast and past tax data to then approximate where we think the current tax estimates are,” says Kumaranayake.

Ensuring accurate estimates

Kumaranayake says this economic forecast is the result of hundreds of equations that analyze data from sources including Statistics Canada. The results from these models predict, or forecast, what Nova Scotia’s economy will be like and how it will grow. Once the forecast has been developed, it is analyzed through the department’s challenge session, which consists of major private sector bank economists, think tank representatives and academic economists from Nova Scotia universities. These economic experts then review the estimates and economic forecast during the session and then confirm with the Minister whether they are reasonable.

“This step is critical in ensuring we have robust and prudent estimates for our budget,” says Kumaranayake.

The economic forecast is finalized once the session has been completed and is then used to produce results for the Nova Scotian economy — on matters including future GDP growth — which are then used alongside Statistics Canada information and tax data for the tax revenue models. These models then provide revenue estimates, or tax collected for personal income tax, corporate income tax, harmonized sales tax (HST) and more. This final answer is then used as the budget revenue estimate.

Other things that Rafuse says are considered during the budget planning process are government programs, what they cost and how that number will change over time, capital budget spending for large multi-year projects, the province’s overall debt and its ability to pay it off and the debt-to-GDP ratio.

“These are just some of the many factors that go into the decision making process, alongside what we can afford that year from a revenue perspective,” says Rafuse.

The people involved

Another estimate is the number of people involved in the whole budget planning process. Kumaranayake and Rafuse estimate that it sits in the hundreds, with totals from the revenue and economic side, the Challenge Session and policy makers are simply too fluid to count.

“It involves entire senior management teams of every government department, their financial and policy groups and countless others working on data that then comes into a central group at the Finance and Treasury Board, which then submits its data to the Treasury Board, a subcommittee of cabinet and
so forth,” says Rafuse.

That process also includes a data review completed by the auditor general. This step is one that Kumaranayake says should give Nova Scotians even more peace of mind on the fact that their budget is being thoroughly vetted.

“The auditor general comes in and reviews the economic models, attends the challenge session and examines the overall results. This is an extremely high level of due diligence that is exercised as they verify if the results are reasonable,” she says.

Rafuse says the vast number of individuals and teams involved is perhaps the best factor to illustrate how major of an undertaking the budget truly is.

“The budget is a major initiative for all departments to participate in. It’s about more than just the numbers — it’s a policy statement about what government intends to do,” says Rafuse.

Determining if it works

Prioritizing a balanced budget versus running a deficit is different for each political party, according to Rafuse, as each runs on a different set of values and defines a successful budget differently.

Deciding whether a budget is successful is therefore a tricky matter, but Rafuse and Kumaranayake say a few metrics exist that can be used to measure a budget’s strength, rather than success.

Kumaranayake says a key factor in a strong budget is built-in flexibility that allows for pivoting after unexpected financial situations arise, like the repairs and cleanup that followed hurricane Dorian. She says this, along with budget forecasts updating the public on how the budget successfully adapted to these changes, show the public their province is being fiscally responsible.

“[These] give the public a sense of what government has had to adapt to and how it did it, like with hurricane Dorian. They are checkpoints that are provided to the public,” she says.

Rafuse says another area that can determine whether a budget performed as it should have is with the release of its actuals, which he says compare the amount spent by the province versus what the budget approved.

“This says what was allocated versus what was spent and is also subject to audit by the auditor general. It looks at the overall position the province is sitting at and is the final accountability document of what was done with taxpayers’ money,” says Rafuse.

Beyond these metrics, things get a little less black and white. A person’s opinion on whether a budget worked for them can be different from the person sitting to their left. While annual online questionnaires in late fall provide the public an opportunity to tell the province what matters to them and what should be done differently, Rafuse says the most surefire way the public can tell a government how it felt about its budget and priorities is simple — voting.

“The most obvious way the public has its say is voting and elections results. Whether the budget was ultimately successful is for others to determine, but the ultimate way for them to have their own say is at the ballots,” says Rafuse.

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