"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."
- Nelson Algren, A Walk on the Wild Side.
And never put too much stock in a budget tabled by a government that's going to call an election the next day.
In 1970, the outgoing Union Nationale government called a spring election without presenting a budget first. Accused by the opposition Liberals of concealing a financial disaster, it was forced to interrupt its campaign to present a hastily prepared "budget" beneath the glittering chandeliers of the ballroom of Montreal's Windsor Hotel. The Liberals defeated the now-defunct UN anyway. It was the last time a government launched a spring campaign without having presented a budget.
Even in non-election years, Quebec budgets are based on the kind of accounting that in the private sector, as the province's auditor-general periodically reminds us, might put a corporate chief financial officer in handcuffs for a perp walk.
In the nine straight fiscal years that successive governments have been "balancing" the annual budget, the province's total debt has somehow grown by $24 billion. The official debt is projected to reach $122 billion at the end of the current fiscal year on March 31.
True to form, the latest "balanced" budget presented yesterday is to add another $3 billion to the total debt, bringing it to a projected $125 billion by the end of the 2007-08 fiscal year.
And we learned after the last election to be especially wary of a budget tossed on the table by a government on the way out the door to the campaign bus. When the new Liberal government had a former auditor-general go over the books, he found a $4.3-billion "gap" left behind by the former Parti Quebecois government.
The PQ's plan was to buy votes with a free-spending budget and worry about covering the hidden deficit after they were re-elected. When the PQ was defeated, it was the incoming Liberals who were stuck with the tab. On the bright side for the Liberals, it's given them an excuse they're still using for their failure to keep their election promise to cut personal income taxes every year by $1 billion.
But whoever is finance minister after the election (it won't be the present minister, since Michel Audet isn't running for re-election) is less likely to face a similar problem. In fact, he'll probably have more money to play with after the election, at least for future years, though it might do the Liberals little good in this election.
Everyone knows Quebec will reap a windfall of several hundred million dollars from the federal budget that the Harper government is to bring down during the Quebec campaign. But because the federal budget hasn't made it official yet, Audet couldn't spend that money in his.
Premier Jean Charest's original plan was to hold off on calling the election until early April, after the federal budget and the presentation of a provincial one reflecting it.
But Charest changed his mind when it appeared that the PQ might replace Andre Boisclair with a stronger leader before the election, and Mario Dumont's Action democratique du Quebec started to rise in the polls. The Gambler decided to catch the PQ before it could change leaders and the ADQ before it could get organized, even if it meant leaving hundreds of millions on the table instead of having it to spend in a pre-election budget.
Audet won't be around after the election to defend the budget he tabled yesterday, but that might not be the real budget for the 2007-08 fiscal year anyway. There could be a second budget - or a budget "statement" amending the first one - brought down after the election by a new finance minister, possibly with different priorities. Yesterday, neither PQ finance critic Francois Legault nor the ADQ's Dumont would commit to keeping the measures in Audet's budget.
What Audet presented yesterday is a campaign pamphlet on steroids, weightier and more detailed, boasting of the government's record, repeating old announcements and elaborating upon new promises.
But it might be only a temporary budget, to be used for the campaign and then disposed of after the election. It might have been printed on Kleenex.
This budget might as well be printed on Kleenex
Yesterday's announcements might have the shelf life of the election campaign