When I was young I used to hear my grandfather talk of things happening on the news and on the political front.
From time to time he would grumble…follow the money…follow the money. That little phrase is very timely right about now for the good citizens of New Brunswick.
Pretend for a minute that you are the premier of New Brunswick and had spent the past three years running up successive budget deficits - even though you promised to adhere to balance budget legislation? What if you had ran the total debt from $5.6 billion to $7.4 billion in three short years? What if you knew there were a number of tough decisions that you have to make in the last year of your mandate? These decisions would probably upset a lot of people that you would need to vote for you to get reelected? To avoid these tough decisions you would have to borrow even more money in year four.
Hmmmm….What to do…..What to do…
You might be on the look out for some CASH and a lot of it. But where would you find it?
Wait a second – New Brunswick has a government owned and operated power utility and is located in a strategic geographic position to pump power into the USA. That could be worth some money. Even though it has a debt (about $4.8 billion) it is not really a debt in the sense that tax payers do not have to pay it. It is serviced by the rate payers and has assets that back it up. For a buyer this should be an attractive proposition.
What if you could sell this utility and get some cash. And by cash we mean a lot of cash. Perhaps somewhere in the $5 billion dollar range. Could it really be worth that much? What if as part of the deal you could get power rates frozen for residential customers and industrial users would get a break. Holy moly you might say – what a killer deal. Tons of cash and rate freeze/reduction. Everyone wins. You would be tempted to quickly jump at that. Devilish details about the deal be damned – you would want that cash. You would send a team in with instructions not to come out until a deal was signed ASAP.
Being a smart politician you would know that you would have to show the people that the utility in question is no longer good and somehow convince them that the debt of that utility is both very bad and part of the overall provincial debt.
As well you would have to be careful about how you position what you are going to do with all that cash. You would be wise to think that the owners of the publicly owned utility might have some issues with you selling it and what you might be planning to do with the money you are getting. Well you might say – all that money will go to pay off the really bad debt associated with the power utility. This will also lower the overall provincial debt by a lot. Sounds good. Right. Just to make sure it all goes off without a hitch you hire several public relations firms to sell the people of NB on the whole thing.
Good news. Somehow you were able to pull it all off and convince the people that the sale of the utility paid off a large chunk of the overall provincial debt – that $4.8 billion associated with the utility. Even though you know it is not really a debt. But you have convinced most New Brunswickers that it is. Phew…
But ohhh boy all that cash….$5B worth. How many good things could you do with that? With overall net debt down by $4.8 billion you might be tempted to borrow some more money to help get through the last year of your mandate and throw enough election goodies around to ensure a victory next September. Even though the the real New Brunswick debt has not changed. Enough people believe it has to allow you to get busy borrowing.
All the hullabaloo about the NB Power deal and what is good or bad, the MOU, NERA report, heritage pool, NPV analysis etc… is all smoke and mirrors to allow the Graham government to go on a spending spree. It is no coincidence that the infrastructure spending was just increased to $1.9 billion over two years. They can do this all the while telling the people of NB that the ‘net’ debt (the one all of a sudden includes NB power’s debt) went down. They can go out and borrow a LOT of money this year and still report that the net debt of the province of NB went down
They are planning on a long summer's worth of black top and as many other make work projects as it takes to buy their way to reelection in September 2010. That is why the budget was backed up into December. To allow for capital projects to get the green light in time for work to start as soon as the snow melts.
Perhaps Mr. Graham is a little smarter than people are giving him credit for. You have to give him kudos for getting us all to think about everything except the money.
As Grandpa always said………………...follow the money.