N.W.T. MLAs begin 5-week session with 'budget problem' leading the agenda

Stand by for the Northwest Territories’ longest political slog of 2016: MLAs reconvene for a five-week-long marathon session on Tuesday. So what can you expect?

Anticipated cuts could be confirmed on Wednesday

The N.W.T. legislature begins its budget session Tuesday.

Stand by for the Northwest Territories' longest political slog of 2016: MLAs reconvene for a five-week-long marathon session on Tuesday. So what can you expect?

Wednesday's budget presentation is likely to dominate the 18 scheduled days of debate coming up before the session ends on June 29.

The territory's leaders have already warned residents that the N.W.T. must "live within its means." They want to lower spending but raise revenues, an issue they characterized as the "budget problem" in the lead-up to this week's tabling of the documents.

At that problem's heart is avoiding the possibility of running a deficit within the next five years if the economy does not pick up and no cutbacks are made.

Cuts confirmed?

Last week it was revealed that 58 territorial government staff may lose their jobs, while details on proposed cuts to some programs are anticipated on Wednesday. A possible merger of government departments is also on the cards.

Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green says she's not convinced that a surplus needs to be spent on roads and other infrastructure over social programs. (Randall McKenzie/CBC)

"They say they want to generate a surplus to invest in roads. I expect that means there will be some programs and positions that are cut," said Yellowknife Centre MLA Julie Green, referring to the territory's stated ambition of pursuing new infrastructure projects to rejuvenate the economy.

"I am not convinced that the surplus needs to be spent on roads. I feel there are more pressing priorities with the level of homelessness and public housing that's in poor repair."

If cuts are announced, some are likely to feature programs that are "sunsetting" — government terminology for those that were naturally ending anyway and will not be replaced.

Public service 'apprehension'

But Kam Lake MLA Kieron Testart says talk of an "austerity budget" is scaremongering and does not reflect the reality.

"The message of cuts and job losses has created a great deal of apprehension among northerners and, in particular, the public service," said Testart.

Kieron Testart, the MLA for Kam Lake, says talk of an 'austerity budget' is scaremongering. (CBC)

"What is being delivered is a status quo budget. I'm not sure why the government has taken such great pains to communicate this austerity message when the ministers are not prepared to implement it."

Testart will miss Wednesday's budget address. He is in Europe this week on a trip he says was booked in 2015, before the territorial election that voted him into office.

Nahendeh MLA Shane Thompson, a former GNWT employee, said he was unsure the public service had been given sufficient time to "come up with answers" and that any cuts to government jobs would be "a challenge" for him to approve.

Thompson also urged caution regarding the government's reported consideration of departmental mergers, but Green argues that is one way to save money without losing programs.

"It's my perception that the government is top-heavy … and that's one way to fix it," she said.

"It would take a big slice of administration out. We reviewed a department that had a section with a director, three managers and four staff. That's the kind of overabundance of administration that I'm talking about."

Housing first

The outcome of Wednesday's budget will decide most of the talking points in the weeks that follow, but MLAs will also arrive armed to address the government on housing and jobs in particular.

"Something that's tangible would be housing for seniors, allowing them to age in place in their own communities and homes," said Tom Beaulieu, who represents Ndilo, Dettah and Lutsel K'e as the MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh.

Tom Beaulieu, MLA for Tu Nedhe-Wiilideh, says he will press the current cabinet to 'do all they can to increase employment rates.' (CBC)

"Housing is very much underserved and there needs to come a point where we take that seriously," added Green, who said colleagues agreed on both seniors' housing and affordable housing as key issues for this session at a recent retreat in Aklavik, alongside the elimination of family violence.

"We need Housing First and we need it now," said Testart.

"Until the minister [Caroline Cochrane] is prepared to commit to that, I think she is failing in her role. Homelessness is out of control in our capital and we need to deal with it."

"I'll certainly be bringing housing up," said Sahtu MLA Daniel McNeely, who wants clarity on how much promised federal and territorial funding for his communities will materialize.

"But the main issue affecting us is jobs."

Former minister Beaulieu concurred, saying he will press the current cabinet to "do all they can to increase employment rates."

He believes the territorial government can save money by effectively "backing out of communities socially … if there's employment, individuals can pay their own way plus pay for other things their families need and lack."

'Hot-button' hospital

For Yellowknife MLAs, the city's new hospital is also a key concern as the session opens. Yellowknife city councillors recently voted down a proposal to build a temporary camp for hospital construction workers in a city neighbourhood, arguing in part that the camp would disrupt the area and not contribute to the local economy.

Contractors working on the hospital said the project would be "devastated" if that camp does not go ahead — so how will the government respond to that city council decision? How realistic, now, is the initial completion date of 2018?

"It's important to see what the government is going to do and whether or not this plan is even viable at this point," said Testart, whose Kam Lake voters would have hosted the camp.

"The hospital came up at my constituency meeting," added Green.

"People are still talking about why we're having a new hospital and what's happening to the old hospital. That's certainly a hot-button issue and I expect myself and others to raise that."


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