Cautious tinge of ambition emerges among lobby groups

Interest groups moving from a ‘just leave us alone and we’ll be happy’ stance

Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin (above) and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan have received  pre-budget submissions and met groups ahead of  tomorrow’s budget. Photograph: Eric Luke

Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin (above) and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan have received pre-budget submissions and met groups ahead of tomorrow’s budget. Photograph: Eric Luke

 

Having had to introduce a series of unpopular budgets since coming to power in 2011, this year’s process must feel a little alien to the Coalition.

The word leeway is creeping back into the vocabulary around Merrion Street as the economy improves and Minister for Public Expenditure Brendan Howlin has confirmed “there will be no further cuts”.

The comment came as a relief to the hundreds of organisations – ranging from employers to the unemployed and smokers to health campaigners – that prepared pre-budget submissions, as well as those who met Ministers and officials to try to make their case in the lead-up to tomorrow’s big reveal.

After years of trying to protect what they had, rather than pushing for more of the diminished spoils, a cautious tinge of ambition has emerged among many of these interest and lobby groups.

Austerity years

There were occasional calls for tax cuts or spending increases during the recent austerity years, often accompanied by suggestions as to how the required revenue could be diverted from elsewhere or raised. But ultimately these requests were made because it is what such groups are supposed to do, and to flag how punitive policies in their areas would not be appreciated.

Lobby groups and their wish lists

Groups are this year intently appealing for, and could well get, measures such as reduced income tax rates, the restoration of welfare payments such as the State pension Christmas bonus, greater healthcare expenditure and social housing initiatives.

But is the pre-budget shopping list making a return?

“For a long time we got a sense they were saying ‘just leave us alone and we’ll be happy’,” said a Government source of the pre-budget process. “The ideas we’re seeing from the groups this year seem to be based on restoration and getting themselves back to parity.”

With some leeway to work with and a chance to offer the voting public some modest payback for enduring years of retrenchment, the Government still appears keen to hear what the groups have to say. All of those surveyed said they had some class of interaction with the Minister relevant to their area and/or Mr Howlin and Minister for Finance Michael Noonan.

Mr Howlin recently described the “short and focused” meetings as “a valuable and vital part of the budget preparations” and said they served two purposes. First, they allow interest groups to set out the concerns of their members and discuss potential solutions.

“Secondly and from my perspective, such a gathering allows me to give context to the present set of circumstances within which I am constructing the expenditure report, to restate the disciplined fiscal restraint I am required to maintain and to give reassurances where I can about direction being taken,” he wrote in a blog on his department’s website.

Cabinet members

The controversy surrounding the appointment of Fine Gael’s John McNulty to a State board and his subsequent Seanad byelection candidacy ate up much of the recent time spent questioning Cabinet members.

But there has been limited kite flying and a few less than subtle nods from the Government, albeit far more easily done than in previous years when it was dropping hints about how money had to be extracted from the economy.

For instance, the Taoiseach last week described the combined 52 per cent tax rate on higher incomes as “burdensome” and said tax cuts introduced for middle- and low-income earners would create 15,000 jobs above what growth projections indicated.