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john ibbitson

Treasury Board President Tony Clement speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Feb. 1, 2012.

March Madness is the name of the famous American college basketball tournament. It also refers to the breeding season of the European hare. But that's not what Tony Clement was talking about when he sent a letter Thursday warning government departments against it.

The Treasury Board President is concerned by the annual spending spree that bureaucrats sometimes indulge in as March 31, the end of the fiscal year, approaches. A copy of his letter prohibiting the practice was obtained by The Globe and Mail.

"In the past, we have heard stories about what is known in Ottawa circles as 'March Madness,' when organizations spend unused operational funds on things such as new furniture, promotional items, stockpiling of IT hardware, and other purchases that fall outside of existing contractual obligations," Mr. Clement wrote in a letter that went out Thursday to all ministers, deputy ministers and heads of crown corporations.

The departments splurge in March because they fear that if they come in under budget, the budget for the next year will be cut.

"This type of expenditure – dictated by the fiscal calendar rather than real departmental needs – is something that our government strongly opposes," Mr. Clement wrote.

The Treasury Board wants senior officials to watch for and prevent any March Madness spending. "I have already directed officials at the Treasury Board Secretariat to continue their work scrutinizing public expenditures and to pay specific attention to operational spending proposals," Mr. Clement wrote. In other words: he's watching.

The letter doesn't say what, if any, punishment will be meted out if a department is caught going on a shopping spree. Nor are there any promised rewards for good behaviour.

Two years ago, the NDP government in Nova Scotia also moved to contain any outbreaks of March Madness. But departments were promised they wouldn't be punished for not spending the money, which was applied instead against the province's deficit.

Mr. Clement can hardly offer departments such assurances, since he has already asked them to submit plans for downsizing their budgets by 5 per cent or 10 per cent. Each department will learn its fate in the March budget. Mr. Clement has been warning lately that the overall cuts may be closer to 10 per cent than five.

Under the circumstances, promising not to hold it against a department if it sends unspent funds back to head office would be a promise not kept, since every department will be cut regardless.

The local Ottawa economy is already bracing for the impact of lost jobs that will accompany the Harper government's moves to eliminate the deficit. Now businesses face another hit: no last-minute orders for swivel chairs during a vernal spending frenzy.

But at least the European hares will still have a good time.