MLA calls out Nunavut gov't for buying new vehicles without approval

Nunavut’s government was taken to task last week for spending money that hadn’t yet been approved by the Legislative Assembly.

Legislative Assembly passes unprecedented motion to claw back unapproved departmental spending

Nunavut’s government was criticized for spending money which hadn’t yet been approved by the Legislative Assembly. (Jane Sponagle/CBC)

Nunavut's government was taken to task last week for spending money that hadn't yet been approved by the Legislative Assembly, culminating in the passing of a never-before-seen motion in the territory.

The issue centred primarily over the purchase of government vehicles for the departments of Health and Justice, which were slated to be bought with money from the 2018-2019 budget — which hadn't yet been approved — but were instead bought using surplus money from their 2017-2018 budgets.

Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes led the charge on bringing the issue to light. He said the departments bought the vehicles when they were not authorized to, and they were still asking for money for those vehicles — by not adjusting their budgets — even though they were already bought and paid for.

Iqaluit-Tasiluk MLA George Hickes led the charge on bringing the issue to light. (CBC)

"I'm a little mystified as to how departments have been able to apparently go ahead and spend money for the next fiscal year, before it has been appropriated," Hickes said in the legislature on Friday.

The issue had come up a handful of times during both Question Period and in committee of the whole meetings last week, but it all came to a head Friday when the Legislative Assembly unanimously passed a motion directing the finance minister to go back through every instance where this has happened, and deduct those amounts from each department's budgets for the upcoming fiscal year.

Surplus money never returned

This isn't the first time the Nunavut government has spent money on things before they were approved by the Legislative Assembly, but this is the first time the government will go back and deduct those spent dollars from the respective departments' budgets.

In responding to Hickes' inquiries throughout the week, various government officials, including Premier Paul Quassa, have said those vehicles needed to be purchased in order to meet the deadline for the upcoming sealift season.

Complicating matters is that because of Nunavut's general election in October, the approval of the capital estimates is only being done now, rather than during the fall sitting as is typical.

'We have to be financially prudent,' says Nunavut's Finance Minister David Akeeagok Finance Minister David Akeeagok. (David Gunn/CBC)

An official from the Department of Justice said earlier in the week that his department only became aware of their surplus a few months ago and weren't able to adjust its budget for the upcoming year.

Hickes also noted how there have been tenders issued, closed and awarded, based on spending requests for the upcoming fiscal year — again, which hadn't yet been approved.

"When you're looking at purchasing, there's a commitment for transportation equipment of over $1.6 million out of [a] $2 million budget that's basically been spent already that we haven't approved," Hickes said on Wednesday.

'We have to be financially prudent'

On Friday, during an unscheduled question-and-answer during committee of the whole, prompted by Hickes, Finance Minister David Akeeagok said there are avenues for departments to return unspent money if it was already used in a previous fiscal year.

"We have to be financially prudent. We know our financial reality here. And if there are funds that our departments don't need, we need to bring it back," Akeeagok said.

But according to Akeeagok, that's never actually happened in Nunavut's history.

"That's my point," Hickes said.

"I know this avenue is available to the government to return surplus, unused expenditures, and they've clearly shown that they're able to use surplus from previous years to purchase equipment from an unapproved item list.

"This has been happening for years from my understanding from some of my colleagues, yet there's never been a return of those dollars."

Hickes then moved the aforementioned motion, which was passed unanimously, although cabinet was reluctant to vote in favour of it.

Akeeagok had, however, already committed to going back and taking a closer look at instances where equipment was bought without prior approval, using surplus money from the previous fiscal year budget, and reporting it back to the Legislative Assembly.

MLAs need to approve spending

In government, MLAs pore over budget estimates for each department for the upcoming fiscal year and go through spending estimates line-by-line, often asking questions about the specific details of a particular area of spending.

Departments will also submit a list of items it wants to purchase in the next fiscal year, so MLAs have a sense of what different departments are planning to buy.

The process is a way to ensure oversight on spending public money.

Once the process is complete, MLAs will approve the budgets and pass a bill to officially authorize each department's spending.

In the case of the already-purchased vehicles, they were on the item list for 2018-2019, which is how MLAs knew they were intended to be purchased this coming fiscal year.