Labour talks ongoing as N.L. government looks to trim $244M in spending

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett is hinting that public sector workers will be asked to make sacrifices as province looks to trim $244 million in spending.

Pre-budget consultations start Thursday, and Cathy Bennett says spending cuts will be the focus

Newfoundland and Labrador Finance Minister Cathy Bennett says the budget for this year will focus on cutting spending, rather than generating more revenue. (CBC)

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett is hinting that public sector workers in Newfoundland and Labrador will be asked to make sacrifices as the government looks to trim $244 million in spending.

Bennett said Thursday that the government and public sector labour unions have exchanged proposals and talks have been ongoing since November.

"My hope is that at the negotiating tables we will see a very productive and open dialogue about how we can come up with some innovative ideas to address what is currently a $3.8 billion spend in employee salaries on an annual basis for the province," Bennett told CBC Radio's St. John's Morning Show.

Another tough budget in the offing

Residents of the province are bracing for what's expected to be another tough budget as the government tries to address what Bennett says is a very serious fiscal situation "that requires us to take a look at our spending."

The 2016 budget included a range of tax and fee increases, including a controversial levy and a doubling of the provincial gas tax.

Bennett has promised there are no increases planned for the 2017 budget, and the government has committed to "do whatever we can to address that gas tax as soon as we can."

I think this year we're hearing there's an understanding of the serious situation we're in.- Cathy Bennett

The proposed cut in spending represents less than three per cent of the $8.5 billion in total expenses for the current fiscal year, but Bennett says "it's a very significant number."

Similar cuts are planned for future years as the province aims to return to a balanced budget in 2022-23.

She said this will require "flatter, leaner public services," and added there are also plans to review the number of agencies, boards and commissions in the province. 

Some government departments have already been reorganized and some deputy and assistant deputy minister positions have been eliminated.

She said other cost-saving measures are planned.

Public consultation sessions begin

A plunge in royalties from oil production and the mining sector have savaged the provincial treasury in recent years, leading to a record $2.2 billion deficit in 2015, and a forecasted deficit of $1.58 billion for the current fiscal year.

Bennett said it's too early to say what the projected revenues might be for the upcoming budget, but she expects to have some preliminary numbers next week.

Meanwhile, pre-budget public consultations begins Thursday with sessions in St. John's, Clarenville, Grand Falls-Windsor and St. Anthony.

There will be 11 meetings in all. Bennett would not give a date for the budget.

"I think if we went back 12 months ago and we were having this conversation about some of the things that had to happen or were considering, many people in the province were surprised. And I think this year we're hearing there's an understanding of the serious situation we're in," Bennett said.

Below is a full list of the public consultations:

  • Thursday, Feb. 2: St. John's, Knights of Columbus on St. Clare Avenue, 7-9 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 2: Grand Falls-Windsor, St. Joseph's Hall, 5 Station Rd., 7-9 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 2: Clarenville, College of the North Atlantic cafeteria, 7-9 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 2: St. Anthony, Grenfell Interpretation Centre, 7-9 p.m.
  • Friday, Feb. 3: Marystown, Marystown Hotel, Salon A, 2-4 p.m.
  • Tuesday, Feb. 7: Labrador West, Arts and Culture Centre in Labrador City, 7-9 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 9: Stephenville, Arts and Culture Centre, 2-4 p.m.
  • Thursday, Feb. 9: Harbour Grace, at the SPLASH Centre, 7-9 p.m.
  • Monday, Feb. 13: Gander, at the Albatross Hotel, 7-9 p.m.
  • Monday, Feb. 13: Corner Brook Civic Centre, 2-4 p.m.
  • Monday, Feb. 13: Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Labrador Friendship Centre, 7-9 p.m.

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