Experts, groups lowering expectations for next month’s federal ‘bridge’ budget

OTTAWA – Don’t expect a pile of goodies or any big new spending programs when Finance Minister Jim Flaherty delivers his budget Feb. 11 — right in the middle of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

Experts say the timing signals a stay-the-course fiscal plan aimed at bridging the gap between a $5.5-billion deficit and an anticipated surplus in 2015, and groups seeking federal help appear to be adjusting their expectations accordingly.

Be prepared for a budget containing little new money, if at all, and plenty of policy announcements that won’t cost anything, observers say.

“The budget is supposed to be the biggest policy statement that the government makes during the course of the year,” said Peter DeVries, an economics professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

“So if there’s going to be significant things in it, they want to make sure that they get the most publicity for those that they can possibly get, and they sure wouldn’t want that to be overtaken by events such as the Olympics.”

Advocates for help on diverse health, social and business issues say they’re seeing positive signs from the government, but aren’t holding their breath for action in this year’s budget.

Tackling Alzheimer’s disease and dementia is one issue that has gained traction, with widespread support from all three major political parties and many Canadians who are coping with the illnesses.

There have been encouraging signs from the government, including a throne speech promise to renew funding for health research of dementia and helping people who care for their older family members, said Mimi Lowi-Young, chief executive of the Alzheimer Society of Canada. All three parties have shown their support.

Health Minister Rona Ambrose also attended a G8 ministers’ meeting on dementia, which drew attention to the importance of a national dementia plan. The Commons finance committee has recommended that the government “move expeditiously” on creating and implementing a strategy. The three major parties have backed the call and petitions supporting the move have been introduced in the House.

But research funding isn’t enough, Lowi-Young said.

The Alzheimer Society wants $3 million in seed money to bring various experts together to build a plan, she said. Caring for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s already costs Canada $33 billion a year in both direct and indirect costs, a number that’s projected to reach a whopping $293 billion by 2040.

That should resonate with a government that’s trying to be fiscally responsible, she said.

“What we’re highlighting to government is saying, look, this is another economic pressure that you need to be concerned about, and let’s work together in trying to put things in place that can really make a difference.”

But it’s unlikely that the money will come this year, said Phil Upshall, national executive director of the Mood Disorders Society of Canada, which belongs to the same umbrella group of neurological health charities.

“I’ve had a bunch of meetings with the feds, and the backgrounds I’ve been getting indicate that there’s going to be no significant money made available in this current budget,” Upshall said.

“So don’t have your expectations high on anything with regard to mental health or the brain or anything else.”

A lot of work has already been done on developing at programs dealing with dementia — one research-oriented proposal and the other dealing with caregivers, Upshall said. The Tories promised in last fall’s throne speech to build on a caregiver tax credit and renew “investments” in dementia research.

“Most organizations, including Mood Disorders Canada, will be targeting the 2015 budget,” he said. “So Mr. Flaherty will be tied up pretty tight next fall and winter dealing with a whole whack of pretty big asks leading up to the 2015 budget.”

It’s a common refrain among other stakeholders, such as the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, who are also looking for a toehold for the 2015 budget.

The organization has lowered expectations that the upcoming budget will address their request for what they call a “competitive” rate of depreciation for manufacturers — how much of the cost of a piece of equipment or other asset can be written off each year so they pay less tax.

The current formula, which expires in 2015, allows companies to do that more quickly, but it costs Ottawa about $1.5 billion every two years, said president and CEO Jayson Myers.

He said his sense is that the Tories’ big objective is balancing the books and any new major tax or spending measures would be in next year’s budget.

The Federation of Canadian Municipalities is looking for a “sustainable” approach to social housing, so local governments aren’t left to deal with it on their own as an agreement providing $1.7 billion in annual federal funding expires.

Nearly 200,000 low-income households in co-op and non-profit housing projects depend on federal rent-geared-to-income housing assistance to pay their rent. But advocates fear much of the existing housing will disappear if that funding isn’t maintained.

The organization isn’t attaching any money to their request this year, but “clearly down the line there is,” said CEO Brock Carleton.

They’re getting encouraging signs from the government, he said. Right now the goal is getting a commitment that affordable housing is a national issue that requires federal attention.

“We recognize that the federal government has an immediate priority that is paramount,” Carleton said.

“And so being very pragmatic, as municipal governments are, they’re looking for ways to advance towards an important objective in a reasonable way.”

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version had the wrong first name for Brock Carleton