Regular MLAs in the Northwest Territories say they don't have any confidence in cabinet's spending plan for the coming year.
Despite weeks of squabbling over it behind closed doors, cabinet and non-cabinet MLAs disagree on the most basic starting point of any budget — cabinet says it's time to cut back, and the MLAs say it's time to spend.
In his sessional statement yesterday, Premier Bob McLeod says the budget his government will release at 1:30 p.m. today reflects what he and his cabinet colleagues heard from northerners during visits to communities.
The MLAs, meanwhile, say they have broad support for their own spending plan.
"I think regular MLAs are taking their cues from constituents, from regular northerners who hare having a hard time in today's economic conditions and need support to keep going," said Kieron Testart, deputy chair of the Priorities and Planning Committee, which is composed of all MLAs who are not in cabinet. Speaker Jackson Lafferty is not a member.
Testart made the statement during an unprecedented press conference yesterday. The committee called the conference to present and defend its vision of the budget.
Regular MLAs Herb Nakimayak and Frederick Blake Jr. are also on the committee but were not present.
The committee wants to see spending increase in areas where longer-term savings can be realized.
That includes $1.3 million to help seniors stay at home longer instead of moving out of their home communities to more expensive long-term care facilities in regional centres, $500,000 for youth suicide prevention and $1.5 million for home health care. They're also hoping to see the funding for the territory's Mining Incentive Program increased.
The government says it wants to reduce spending on things such as wages and programs and services to reduce its debt and save money for infrastructure projects.
The government can't afford the kind of spending regular MLAs are asking for, Robert C. McLeod, the minister of Finance, said on Northbeat Tuesday night.
But the budget will speak to some issues important to Northerners such as 911 service and junior kindergarten, he said.
McLeod said cabinet has already scaled back the cuts initially proposed and reminded regulars MLAs that compromise is one of the cornerstones of consensus government.
Excluding Lafferty, who does not vote, regular MLAs hold the majority of votes in the legislature — if they vote in unison.
"Staying true to the spirit and intent of consensus is a challenge all members of the legislative assembly are responsible for," said McLeod. "Meeting that challenge does not always come easily, particularly when we are asked to give and take on issues that we care about personally."
He also offered a few olive branches, including establishing a joint committee of cabinet ministers and MLAs to address the concerns of rural and remote communities.
"We could even hold these meetings in public in keeping with our commitment to openness and transparency," said McLeod.
But at their press conference, the MLAs appeared adamant about both spending and job cuts, even though government spending has increased almost 50 per cent over the last 15 years.
Asked if MLAs would oppose job cuts that do not have an impact on programs and services, such as the cuts that would go with departmental amalgamations the government is expected to propose in today's budget, committee chair Tom Beaulieu said he doesn't believe any jobs should be cut.
"Every time there is a job cut or if a family loses their main breadwinner they make the decision to move — a family of four or a family of five. That means we're losing transfer payments and we're also losing the individual's income into the community, into the market," said the Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh MLA.
Population is one of the many factors used to calculate the annual federal grant that accounts for almost 70 per cent of the territorial government's revenue. The government estimates that whenever a person leaves, it reduces the grant by about $30,000.
Testart said public services were never the priority in the merging of the departments of Transportation and Public Works and Services into a new Department of Infrastructure. The government is also mulling the combining four other departments into two.
"They were not designed with an eye to improving efficiencies or maintaining services, it was with an eye to reduce overall costs," said Testart. "I think our cabinet colleagues are more driven by the necessities of government and the necessities of running a very large bureaucracy."
Though there's been a lot of talk around it already, none of the MLAs or cabinet ministers are allowed to talk about what's actually in the budget until it's unveiled today. The budget debate is scheduled to continue for six weeks.