Nfld. & Labrador

Liberals to tackle Newfoundland and Labrador's fiscal plight

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has announced an initiative to tackle a dire fiscal situation that will only worsen if left unchecked.
Premier Dwight Ball provides a fiscal update during a news conference Tuesday at Confederation Building. (CBC)

The Newfoundland and Labrador government has announced an initiative to tackle a dire fiscal situation that will only worsen if left unchecked.

The so-called Government Renewal Initiative was unveiled Tuesday during a news conference at Confederation Building in St. John's. 

Premier Dwight Ball promised "decisive action" through a multi-year approach to deal with record deficits and a ballooning debt.

The approach will include four pillars. They are:

1. identifying a combination of measure to increase revenues and reduce expenditures;

2. eliminating waste and identify opportunities to do things better and more efficiently;

3. assessing the role of government in providing public services; and

4. establishing multi-year fiscal targets.

Difficult decisions ahead

"Our province is facing a difficult fiscal reality that requires a new approach — one that is open, transparent and engages the public in meaningful ways," Ball said.

Finance Minister Cathy Bennett said difficult decisions have to be made.

"The questions we will be asked will challenge us to think beyond ourselves as individuals. We are being asked to balance our wants against our needs. This is tough, but if we are to get our province back on track, we all have a role to play. Our province, our communities and our families deserve our best efforts and nothing less."

Bennett repeatedly used the word "engagement" to describe the process.

Led by the Office of Public Engagement, this will include town hall meetings and more.

This process will begin on Jan. 25 with an engagement session in Rocky Harbour, and others planned for Corner Brook, St. John's, Port aux Basques and Grand Falls-Windsor.

A more complete schedule of meetings will be posted in the coming days.

"With the involvement and engagement of Newfoundlanders and Labradorians, government policy will better reflect your needs and will provide valuable insight into issues that matter most,"  said Siobhan Coady, Minister Responsible for the Office of Public Engagement.

"Today, we are beginning an important conversation and I invite everyone to be involved," she said. 

The Liberals, who won the provincial election on Nov. 30, revealed before Christmas that the deficit for the current fiscal year is expected to reach $1.96 billion. 

The government also said that unless it cuts expenses or finds new revenues, the deficit for 2016-17 will be $2.4 billion. 

'Call to action'

Ball described the initiative as a "call to action" for the entire province as it copes with a downturn in commodity prices that has crippled the province's economy.

He said the plan is to work closely with all citizens, including the public service, business, labour and community groups.

"We have never been into the financial situation we are into right now," he said.

Ball was again asked about the possibility of public sector layoffs, but stressed that "attrition is the way forward for us." 

Billions in offshore royalties, but no 'rainy day' fund

The province's bottom line is being ravaged by oil prices that now hover around the US$30 mark, and a drop in production in the offshore.

But the premier and finance minister also stressed that the former PC government was running big deficits even when oil was around the $100 mark.`

"A lot of it is about management and not planning for where we are today," Ball said.

He said his focus is not about placing blame, but on "resetting" the province for a sustainable future.

The province has collected some $25 billion in offshore royalties over the years, and Bennett suggested some of this windfall should have been available to help the province through tough times.

"We want to discuss how we create some type of opportunity to have some money put aside for a rainy day ... it's raining. And it would have been nice if that had happened in the past ... it didn't ... our intention is to make sure it happens in the future."