14 things to watch for in 2014
We have no idea which stories will most dominate the news headlines in the coming 12 months, but we have a pretty good guess about some of the major issues that will be hard to miss. Political leaders will be fighting for their ground, a multi-billion-dollar pension problem will need to be addressed, and there are not one, but several important decisions to be made in the offshore oil industry.
Here are of things that we expect will command our attention in 2014.
1. NDP's turmoil
2. Justice review
In the coming weeks, expect to hear the outcome of reviews of different components of the justice system. You may remember that there were steep cuts in last March's budget, which were later spared from the chopping block. A review of the Sheriff's Office is underway, as is a separate review of legal aid services. The government has received the first, but has not yet made it public. Veteran lawyer John Roil took on the legal aid review after retired provincial court judge John Rorke withdrew from the review for personal reasons.
3. Chopper decisions
4. Statoil's dilemma
A Statoil executive recently mused that the company may not be able to afford pending developments in both Alberta's oilsands and Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore. The reason? Oil revenues simply are not what they used to be, even when fluttering around the $100 mark, in part because development costs have been rising continually. That means the deep-sea development that would be needed to open up the Flemish Pass may just be a bit too rich for Statoil right now. A fair bit could be at stake with the decision, as a decision to proceed sooner rather than later on properties like Mizzen could have dramatic consequences for the oilpatch, and the local economy.
5. Kathy Dunderdale's standing
Premier Kathy Dunderdale is no doubt glad to have 2013 behind her. It was the year, after all, when the Tories tumbled for a period to last place in the polls, and Dunderdale found herself ranked as the least popular premier in the country. With former cabinet ministers already speaking openly about a need for a change in direction at the top, Dunderdale will be under increasing pressure to convince Tories that she is in prime fighting condition.
6. Shall we (re)set a date?
7. Watching the deficit
A month ago, Finance Minister Tom Marshall updated the provincial ledger. The good news? The projected deficit has dropped to $450.6 million. The bad news? The government is pulling in less money from offshore oil than forecast. The government expects the forthcoming spring budget to be in the red, with balanced books expected by 2015 (conspicuously not long before the provincial election.) The government has been telegraphing that the steep cuts and job eliminations of the last budget will not be repeated in the coming budget.
8. Pensions on the table
The provincial government reached deals with most of its unionized workers on four-year contracts that include modest (some civil servants would say slender) pay increases. Those negotiations may be nothing compared to the talks set to resume this year on pensions, and more precisely on addressing an unfunded liability that was expected to grow to $6.5-billion this year. The issue is so critical that it's one of the government's overall fiscal priorities for the year.
9. Campus studies
10. Interest rates
Much of the development of the last decade, particularly on the Avalon Peninsula, has been predicated not just on an oil-fueled boom, but on the easy availability of cheap money. Interest rates have been stable and relatively low that a whole generation of borrowers has come into the marketplace, unfamiliar with the double-digit headaches of years ago. Even a small hike in interest rates could have a serious effect on the residential market, not to mention commercial developments.
11. Municipal math
Municipal taxes are going up in Mount Pearl, will be frozen in St. John's and Conception Bay South (albeit with a water hike in the latter), and a poll tax will be phased out gradually in Corner Brook. Starting Jan. 1, the province's municipal operating grants formula kicks into effect, with the emphasis on helping towns with less than 11,000 people. It also means a hit for bigger municipalities … including Mount Pearl, which had to hike its taxes in part to make up for what it lost in provincial grants.
12. The skyline of St. John's
13. A faster signal
One of the issues that raise the dander of rural residents is the limited access to high-speed internet. Things have been improving, for sure, but 2014 is expected to be a key year. The government has set itself a target of providing broadband coverage to 95 per cent of the province by the end of the year.
14. On the arts scene ...
For book lovers, one significant event is just weeks away. Last year, Lisa Moore took the bouquet at the end of CBC Radio's annual Canada Reads literary festival, with her novel February. Kathleen Winter, who has moved to Montreal but remains a big part of the writing community in this province, is competing this year with her Labrador-set novel Annabel.