Quebec to Ottawa: Give us money

don't expect thanks; Charest wants billions in federal money but won't give Ottawa any credit

Budget de MJF - mars 2009

Jean Charest wants billions of dollars in bailouts from the federal government. But if he gets them, Ottawa can't expect our panhandling premier to say "thank you."
On Monday, Charest and Employment Minister Sam Hamad announced details of a package of new measures, called Employment Pact Plus, to help unemployed workers find jobs and employers to avoid layoffs.
The government release describing the measures said they would cost a total of $518 million over two years, of which $455.8 million would come out of "public funds" and $62.2 million from the private sector.
What it didn't say is that the government that is taking the credit for the measures is putting up the smallest share of the cost, only six per cent, according to one of the documents accompanying last week's budget speech.
The document says Quebec expects Ottawa to foot 80 per cent of the bill, or more than 12 times the province's share.
Yet no federal representative attended the announcement, and the 1,850-word communiqué (nearly three times the length of this column) did not mention the contribution expected from Ottawa that allowed Charest to make this grab for glory.
And when the premier was asked about the federal money, he said Quebec is entitled to it, and it's overdue. "Everybody in Quebec has been asking the federal government to do more. So now it's taking action. And we're going to get the money that's coming to us from those programs."
That's gratitude for you. And the $415.7 million in federal funds for the employment program is small potatoes compared to the additional sums the Charest government expects from Ottawa over the next four years.
In her budget speech, Finance Minister Monique Jérôme-Forget said the government would run a deficit in each of the next four years because of the recession, but would return to a balanced budget by 2013-14.
But while the budget plan says the government will have to come up with a total of $15.1 billion over four years to balance its budget by 2013-14, the revenue measures it identifies account for only 43 per cent of that sum.
The remainder will come from "other revenue or expenditure measures" that will gradually increase to reach a recurring $4 billion a year.
These measures are "to be identified." But in her budget speech, Jérôme-Forget said the government doesn't plan to raise personal or corporate income taxes or interrupt its contributions to the debt-reduction Generations Fund.
So here's where Ottawa is expected to come in. To cover the budget shortfall, the budget plan says, "the Quebec government will continue talks with the federal government, with a view to its granting Quebec's requests." In particular, Quebec wants Ottawa to restore unilateral cuts in equalization payments that it estimates will cost it more than $1 billion a year.
Charest might have to wait to see the money he wants from Ottawa.
Negotiations on federal funding for such provincial programs as the employment measures can take time. Quebec mayors complain that badly needed infrastructure projects are being held up because Ottawa and the province still haven't reached agreement after two years of negotiations.
As far as the Harper government is concerned, the "fiscal imbalance" between Ottawa and the provinces has been settled. And since failing to win a majority in last October's federal election, Prime Minister Harper appears to have written off Quebec.
And Harper holds a couple of personal grudges against Charest. One is for double-crossing him by using a federal transfer late in the 2007 provincial election campaign to cut personal income taxes instead of maintaining public services. And the other is for helping to deny him his majority last October.
So Harper might not be in a hurry to do Charest any favours.
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