N.W.T.'s capital budget 'doesn't reflect priorities,' say some MLAs

MLAs express frustration over the proposed capital budget dedicating $10.6 million of $506.6 million for housing, when 10 times more is slated to be spent on highways, roads and bridges.

MLAs expressed frustration that only 2 per cent of the draft capital budget is going towards housing

Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, in the Legislative Assembly on Nov. 23. He said Thursday that he would be voting down the proposed spending plan and that the capital budget doesn't reflect the assembly's priorities. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Next year's territorial capital estimates budget has been tabled in the N.W.T. Legislative Assembly, and some members are expressing frustration over the lack of funds for housing. 

Increasing the number of affordable homes and reducing core housing needs is a stated priority of the current 19th assembly

Why then, some MLAs are asking, is only two per cent of the $502 million budget dedicated to housing?

Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake, said outright that he would be voting the proposed budget down.

"One hundred and fifty million dollars in this budget alone is for roads and this budget shows us spending $10.6 million on housing when housing is a priority for this assembly and certainly for myself and many of the regular MLAs," he said.

"This is completely out of balance."

O'Reilly said that he's "never accepted these large infrastructure projects as a priority for this assembly,' referring to money allocated to building roads, highways and bridges.

Without addressing the territory's spending, O'Reilly said the government would be passing unnecessary debt onto future generations. 

"We're not just on the precipice of a fiscal cliff, Madam chair, we're going over the cliff right now," he said to the committee of the whole. "And the money that we do have, we're not even spending on the right priorities." 

Yellowknife North MLA Rylund Johnson in the Legislative Assembly on Nov. 23. He expressed similar frustration to O'Reilly. (Travis Burke/CBC)

Rylund Johnson, MLA for Yellowknife North, expressed similar frustration.

"When I look at the disconnect between our government's priorities, our operating budget and this capital budget, I just can't help but think that proper thought and strategic direction was not put in it," he said to committee of the whole Wednesday. 

"Housing is a priority of this assembly, it is a priority of every single member here and only two per cent of this is to build new houses. I cannot reconcile that fact with the political priorities of this House." 

Johnson added that he "would gladly cut two per cent of this budget to double housing's budget." 

90 units coming, still not enough

Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for housing, told the assembly that 90 public housing units are expected to be built by 2024.

Though she acknowledged the 90 units as the largest increase the territory has seen in decades, MLA for Kam Lake Caitlin Cleveland noted that even if the N.W.T. added 90 new units each year, it would take 36 years to fulfill the whole housing waitlist. 

Paulie Chinna, the minister responsible for housing, pictured in July 2021. Chinna told the assembly that 90 public housing units are expected to be built by 2024. (Graham Shishkov/CBC)

Chinna also told the assembly that there are 178 people on the housing waitlist in the Beaufort-Delta alone. 

Katrina Nokleby, MLA for Great Slave, and Frieda Martselos, MLA for Thebacha, expressed their support in the spending plan. 

The two members agreed that investing in infrastructure will help with economic recovery coming out of the pandemic to create jobs. 

Nokleby added that building roads, highways and bridges would also allow the territory to move the materials that "work towards those housing priorities."

Johnson further noted that none of the $150 million dedicated to transportation infrastructure includes costs to maintain them. 

"Our infrastructure is crumbling and here we are adding more."

Largest budget for second year in a row

Caroline Wawzonek, the finance minister, answered her colleagues' specific questions about budget allocations and timelines, but appeared not to react to their frustrations and criticisms. 

N.W.T. Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek pictured in October 2020. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

If passed, the $502.6 million budget will be, for the second year in a row, the largest the territory has seen to date.

Also included are renovations and acquisitions for schools in Behchokǫ̀, Whatì, Colville Lake and other communities. 

There are also plans to extend the Mackenzie Valley fibre link along the Inuvik-Tuktoyaktuk Highway, as well as to replace health centre facilities, transportation and equipment in communities across the territory.

About $90 million of the capital budget is carryover from previous years and approximately $216 million comes from federal funding. 

Members are expected to vote on the draft budget later in the session.