Proposed N.W.T. budget promises 'more sustainable future'

The N.W.T.'s proposed budget for 2022-2023 sets out a "more sustainable future” according to deputy finance minister William MacKay — a stark difference from the “unsustainable” fiscal plan that was unveiled a year ago. 

No major cuts and no tax inceases but some fees will rise due to inflation

Caroline Wawzonek, the N.W.T.'s minister of Finance, presented the budget on Tuesday, Feb. 22. (Liny Lamberink/CBC)

The N.W.T.'s proposed budget for 2022-2023 sets out a "more sustainable future" according to deputy finance minister William MacKay — a stark difference from what finance officials last year called an "unsustainable" fiscal plan.

"Our fiscal outlook has improved from this time last year, we're well into our recovery," said Caroline Wawzonek, the minister of finance, during a media briefing on Tuesday. She later told politicians at the Legislative Assembly that the budget was not "flashy" but its themes are about consistency and patience.

There are no major cuts in the budget, said Wawzonek. There also aren't any new taxes, but property mill rates and some fees will rise because of inflation. 

And while the government is "monitoring the data" on who's paying taxes on what, Wawzonek said creating a higher tax bracket would bring little benefit to the territory compared to the "risks to our competitive position" given the territory's small population. 

Wawzonek said the territorial government anticipates spending $2.142 billion in the upcoming fiscal year and bringing in $2.3 billion dollars in revenue. That leaves a $131 million operating surplus. 

Wawzonek said $67 million of the surplus on the operations side came from federal supports and savings in program delivery, and that she expects to continue to see operating surpluses going forward into 2025-26. 

"We plan to use these operational surpluses to fund planned capital investment of $1.34 billion between now and 2025-26," she said. 

'Improvements from within'

"I am optimistic that we can control future spending through internal savings and continue to find more value from the $2.1 billion that we spend without having to reduce programs and services," Wawzonek said in her budget address. 

It's a theme Wawzonek hit on several times — "improvements from within without new money." 

That won't be enough, however, to cover the costs of needed infrastructure and Wawzonek expects the territory's debt to continue growing to $1.7 billion in the upcoming fiscal year. 

The cost of COVID-19

The estimated cost of the pandemic is pegged at $56 million. That consists of the estimated $33 million impact on the territory's revenue from the current fiscal year and a forecasted $23 million in the upcoming year.

Wawzonek said it's disappointing that the pandemic continues to be an issue the territory will face in the next fiscal year. She's hopeful it will "fade" to endemic levels and become "an illness we can guard against with vaccines, treatments and improved capacity in the health care system."

She said the new budget anticipated spending on the COVID-19 Secretariat will go down by $6 million to $11.9 million. That's because the program is coming to an end. 

There's also $640,000 from the federal government to increase vaccine coverage in the territory. 

Economic outlook and recovery

The economy is estimated to have grown 7.3 per cent from 2020 to 2021 but, with no growth expected in 2022, the territory's economy is still 4.5 per cent smaller than it was in 2019. 

And while employment is now higher than pre-pandemic levels, and average earnings in the N.W.T. remain 35 per cent higher than elsewhere in the country, Wawzonek said the recovery has been "uneven across sectors." 

The hardest hit sectors like tourism, hospitality, mining and wholesale trade "continue to struggle," she said. 

Environment and climate change

The budget makes a $4.7 million promise to the Artic Energy Alliance to deliver on programs targeted to reduce carbon emissions.

There's also an additional $1 million to support work with co-management partners on the recovery of the Bathurst and Bluenose East caribou herds. This would support "actions on harvest, predator and habitat management, protection of caribou habitat and enhanced research and monitoring."

Beyond those investments, Wawzonek said, there is "a lot more going on to try and find what is driving GHG [greenhouse gas] emissions in the territory and what we are doing about it."

She pointed to the Taltson Hydro Expansion Project as an example. 

"It has the potential to bring hydro energy, cleaner energy to ... a large swath of the territory, which would of course change the picture significant in terms of communities but if it were to be expanded into the Slave Geographic Region, would hit on the industries that were actually the biggest drivers of our GHG emissions." 

Health and wellness

Spending on health care and wellness will go up by $23 million in this budget.

The N.W.T. government is investing $7.1 million into medical travel and healthcare reform, and $2.92 million in the Northern Wellness Agreement for community-based health programs. There's also $1.7 million for more counselling and activities to support community organisations addressing mental health and addictions. 

The territory is also investing $1 million each into territorial cancer programs and into expanding a midwifery program

The budget will now be debated, department by department, over the next few weeks.