N.W.T. budget preview: 2nd wave of cuts expected, department mergers possible

Wednesday's N.W.T. budget will likely propose the merging of at least two government departments and include a second round of cuts as part of the government's multi-year effort to save and raise $150 million.

Big question remains whether government will foot entire bill for junior kindergarten rollout

Kieron Testart, the MLA for Yellowknife's Kam Lake riding, tweeted a selfie during a committee meeting of MLAs on Monday. A lengthy budget session begins at the legislative assembly today, with the budget address scheduled for Wednesday. (Kieron Testart/Twitter )

N.W.T.'s latest budget, expected Wednesday, will likely propose the merging of at least two government departments and include a second round of cuts as part of the government's multi-year effort to save $150 million.

Last year's budget set out to reduce spending by a third of that target, $53 million, with the remaining savings to be made in the following four years (the coming 2017-2018 fiscal year being the first of those four remaining years).

As part of that plan, the government sought to reduce the number of government jobs (on a net basis) by 97.

Wally Schumann, the minister of both Public Works and Services plus Transportation, has said a proposed merger of those departments would 'probably' lead to job cuts. (CBC)

Wednesday's budget will give an idea how much of that was actually achieved, and what's coming next, though all decisions will need to be approved by a majority of MLAs in order to come into effect. 

One thing is for sure: 

"There are future reductions and job losses being contemplated by the government," said Kieron Testart, MLA for Yellowknife's Kam Lake riding, of Wednesday's budget.

Premier speech signals spending reductions

Premier Bob McLeod hinted at more belt-tightening during a speech in Vancouver last week.

"Our government is looking for ways to responsibly reduce expenditures so we can make investments in much needed infrastructure that will help create jobs for NWT residents," he said. 

"At the same time, we are also looking at ways we can encourage more business and investment in the North."

Two probable targets for cutting are the departments of Public Works and Services and Transportation.

Last fall, the government announced a proposal to merge those two departments into a single infrastructure department.

After the announcement, Wally Schumann, the minister of both departments, said the merger would "probably" lead to some job cuts.

Public Works and Services was the territorial government's third-largest department as of last year.

But those aren't the only departments the government may propose for amalgamation Wednesday.

As of last fall the government was also considering:

  • combining the departments of Human Resources and Finance
  • merging the Department of the Executive with the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Relations
  • giving over three other departments' corporate services functions to the Department of Finance

Junior kindergarten battle lines drawn

Some regular MLAs are already suggesting they'll oppose a budget that cuts too deeply.

Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, says any cuts need to be balanced with investments in people.

"A budget that would deliver more cuts than the last one is going to be a difficult budget for the government to sell," she said.

For Testart, the dealbreaker will be how the government proposes to fund its rollout of the junior kindergarten program.

Last December, the Department of Education, Culture and Employment asked school boards to reallocate $2.6 million for the expansion.

But school boards in Yellowknife have balked at that request, saying it would force cuts in other areas of K to 12 programming such as staffing and classes like music and physical education. 

On Friday, Kevin O'Reilly, who represents Yellowknife's Frame Lake constituency, ramped up the pressure.

An e-petition started by parent David Wasylciw had garnered 83 signatures as of early Tuesday.

Green, meanwhile, took Education Minister Alfred Moses to task for not attending either of two public meetings held by Yellowknife school boards last week to discuss the funding issue.

Moses, along with the six other members of cabinet, was attending a mining trade show in Vancouver during most of last week.

When CBC learned the trip will cost an estimated $75,000, O'Reilly, who had already criticized the trip, could not help but make another jab on Facebook.

Arctic drilling, communication among other priorities

Shane Thompson, the MLA for the Nahendeh region, shared Testart's tweet about junior kindergarten but says he plans to raise a host of other issues during this session of the legislative assembly, which kicks off today and runs until early March.

Michael Nadli, the MLA for the Deh Cho, said that while "junior kindergarten tops all concerns," housing, power transmission and tourism were also raised to him during recent constituency meetings. 

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's decision to ban new licences for offshore drilling for the next five years drew criticism from McLeod last month.

Herb Nakimayak, the MLA for the Nunakput region, says he plans to raise the issue in the legislative assembly, though he did not clarify to CBC News his position on Trudeau's ban.

N.W.T.'s regular MLAs will hold a news conference Tuesday afternoon to outline their budget priorities.


Guy Quenneville

Reporter at CBC Saskatoon

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