N.W.T. Budget Wars: Episode II - Revenge of the Regular MLAs
Impasse over issues like homecare, funding for mineral explorers has stalled approvals of departments' budgets
Previously on N.W.T. Budget Wars: Cabinet minister Glen Abernethy chastized regular MLAs for taking hard-line stances on the budget:
Regular MLAs in the Northwest Territories are stalling the passing of the 2017-2018 budget in a continued effort to convince cabinet members to increase spending and add new items to the budget.
The growing impasse comes at the midpoint of the current marathon budget session, which is scheduled to conclude on March 10.
Regular MLAs have "deferred" the budgets for the departments of Industry, Tourism and Investment plus Health and Social Services, effectively stalling the approval of those budgets.
What if the budget doesn't actually pass?
If the impasse continues, the government could enter the April 1 start of the fiscal year without the money to run itself.
"Until all activities and departments have been either accepted or rejected," the budget can't be passed, says Danielle Mager, a spokesperson in the legislative assembly clerk's office.
That could prompt MLAs to extend the current session past March 10. In another scenario, the government would have to introduce an interim supply bill to cover its expenses for a few months, or perhaps seek a special warrant from the commissioner.
Either way, a stalled budget would create headaches for a government keen to move past what's been a divisive budget debate.
"I've said it to members and I'll say it again: I don't believe that solidarity for the sake of solidarity benefits the people of the Northwest Territories," said Health Minister Glen Abernethy last week.
"This building needs to work together."
Before the budget review began, regular MLAs released a list of alternative items and spending increases they'd like to see in the budget. The list, which the MLAs say would amount to less than two per cent of the budget, includes a $600,000 top-up to the Mineral Incentive Program, which provides money to exploration companies.
On Thursday, Kieron Testart, the MLA for Yellowknife's Kam Lake riding, formally asked the minister of Industry, Tourism and Investment for that increase, which would raise the program's budget to $1 million.
"The program has remained, I would say, stagnant," said Testart, citing the current economic downturn and the need to support companies further.
"I am sure the minister would say [it's] stable funding at $400,000, whereas our neighbouring jurisdiction, the Yukon, [invests] $1.6 million into this fund.
"We should be increasing this fund to at least be comparable to our neighbours in the Yukon."
But Minister Wally Schumann didn't respond as Testart wanted.
"I am worried about the Government of the Northwest Territories, not the Government of the Yukon.," said Schumann.
"I will look at trying to top this up in the coming years of the life of this legislative assembly."
Soon after, that section of the ITI budget was deferred.
Money for homecare demanded
Something similar happened the day before, when Julie Green, the MLA for Yellowknife Centre, asked the health minister for $1.5 million for homecare services.
"Homecare resources are stretched very thin in the territory," she said. "For example, there are more homecare resources in the Beaufort Delta than there are in Yellowknife, where half the population lives.
"I know the minister is working on a continuing care plan, but I feel that there is a need to invest in homecare resources in this budget."
Abernethy said that without a concrete plan in place, funding would need to wait until the 2018-2019 budget.
He did however add that "we are certainly willing to explore the possibility of a supplemental [appropriation for 2017-2018], but that would have to be supported by cabinet, the Financial Management Board and the House."
Shortly thereafter, the budget for the health department was deferred.
The assembly still needs to review nine other departments' budgets over the next three weeks.