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Nunavut pumps up its fuel debt cap to keep gas prices low

Gas prices won’t have to spike next month, thanks to new legislation that will let the territory double the fuel debt it’s allowed to carry.

Stand-in petroleum bill comes after MLAs say they won’t 'rubber stamp' bills because of election

As both Justice and Finance minister, George Hickes said some of his department's legislation is at risk of dying with this government. (Beth Brown/CBC)

Gas prices won't have to spike next month in Nunavut, thanks to new legislation that will let the territory double the fuel debt it's allowed to carry.

Bill 68, an Act to Amend the Revolving Funds Act, No. 2, passed third reading in the Legislative Assembly last Friday. It means Nunavut's Petroleum Products Division can carry up to $20 million in debt from fuel purchasing, instead of the $10 million it was already allowed. 

Because fuel revenue fell during COVID-19, the division is facing a $13.5-million deficit for the current fiscal year and an $18-million deficit overall. 

The bill was introduced last week and passed in a few days. The territory is now legally allowed to carry that deficit. 

The government tries to break even with fuel spending each year, setting annual gas prices based on how much bulk fuel is purchased in a sealift season. 

But because it's in debt, this bill acts like a Band-Aid. It means the territory won't have to increase gas prices to make that money back faster. 

But Finance Minister George Hickes said the increased debt allowance will only fix part of the government's petroleum problem. 

"It will alleviate some of the pressures for the fiscal year end. But it doesn't solve the issue of being able to purchase fuel as low as possible and sell it as low as possible," he said. 

What his department needs, Hickes said, is to be able to buy more wholesale fuel in bulk. But this sitting, MLAs delayed another bill that would legislate a $100 million credit increase to the government's annual fuel spending limit. 

Hickes said the delay has an "immediate impact on fuel pricing." 

But while Hickes said the legislation is being "over-analyzed," MLAs say they're not about to start pushing paper just so legislation gets passed before the government is dissolved in the fall. 

Chair of the standing committee on legislation and MLA John Main said when regular members delay a bill, they have good reasons. (Sara Frizzell/CBC)

MLAs say they can't rush law-making

With just two sittings left before an October election, John Main, the chair of the standing committee on legislation, said that goes for all bills still before the committee. 

"We can't be expected to rubber stamp pieces of legislation without analyzing them properly, without doing our due diligence, just because there is an election coming up,"  said Main, who represents the riding of Arviat North-Whale Cove. "When we choose not to move forward with a bill, we have a good reason." 

As MLAs focus this sitting on passing next year's operations and maintenance budget, there have been a number of motions made to extend the time frame regular members have to review legislation before bringing it to the house for consideration. 

The members say more time is required to prioritize a review of amendments to the Mental Health Act, which hasn't been updated since Nunavut was part of the Northwest Territories. That bill has been at second reading since October 2019.

Also delayed is legislation that would see a tax placed on alcohol sold in territory. 

And besides the two petroleum related bills, Hickes said he's disappointed by a motion passed to delay review of a bill that would allow the government to contract civilian oversight of serious incidents involving RCMP in Nunavut. 

A public call for civilian oversight of Nunavut's RCMP followed fatalities and reports of excessive use of force. In one high-profile incident last year, a Kinngait man was hit by the door of a moving police truck.

The Ottawa Police Service currently investigates any serious incidents involving Nunavut RCMP, and their reports do not have to be made public. 

Iqaluit MLA Adam Arreak Lightstone has been vocal about the need for change. 

"The current practice of police investigating police provides little accountability in the investigation process, especially when the final report is provided to the police themselves and they choose what, if any, portions of the report are to be made public," he said in the assembly. 

But it was Arreak Lightstone who motioned to delay bringing the bill into the house. Members outvoted cabinet to make that happen. 

John Main said he can't elaborate on what the sticking points are with the bill. But he said MLAs have the power to make amendments to legislation when they feel it is needed. 

Bill 53, an Act to Amend the RCMP Agreement Act, does make it so the government can contract civilian oversight, but it doesn't require it.

Hickes said he's concerned the bill will die on the order table.

"When we're looking at civilian oversight, the current act basically prohibits it, so that police and other police forces are investigating our critical incident crimes," he said.

"We have money in the budget to hit the ground running on making sure that those measures are transparent and the investigations are more open to public scrutiny."

Those bills will have to wait until the spring sitting for a chance to come back to the house. The current winter session adjourns on March 16.

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