North

'A paltry sum': Critics question $25 million proposed for N.W.T. government's 22 priorities

Mandate priorities include 100 new affordable housing units, modernizing airport infrastructure, and helping to create 125 new jobs in small communities.

2020-21 budget pitches spending $25M on mandate goals over the life of the 19th Legislative Assembly

Former MLA Kieron Testart said the government should be spending far more on the priorities it set out for itself in its mandate. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

Critics outside and inside the Northwest Territories Legislative Assembly are showing a mix of tempered optimism and unease over the proposed 2020-21 territorial budget — specifically, over the amount set out to tackle the Legislative Assembly's top priorities.

The territorial government released a $1.983-billion budget for the 2020-21 fiscal year on Tuesday, one that puts just $10 million this coming year toward the 19th Legislative Assembly's 22 mandate priorities, and $25 million in total to that end over the next three and a half years. 

With his three-week-old infant in tow, Kieron Testart, a former MLA and sometimes-CBC contributor, took issue with the relatively small amount aimed right now at the assembly's priorities — priorities that include 100 new affordable housing units, modernizing airport infrastructure, and helping to bring reliable, high-speed internet to the communities.

"Those priorities come from the people," said Testart. "The entire budget should be serving the mandate of this assembly, not a paltry sum."

Kam Lake MLA Caitlin Cleveland agreed that $25 million to achieve the 19th Assembly's goals before the next election is "not very much at all."

She said the government could look inside departments to see where money might be moved around to better align with the mandate.

'Not much there for the small communities'

Ron Bonnetrouge, MLA for Deh Cho, was hoping there would be more money for small communities to create jobs — a mandate goal. 

"There's not much there for the small communities," he said, adding that "a significant amount of people" in the smaller communities are on income assistance. 

Ron Bonnetrouge, MLA for Deh Cho, said he would have liked to see more money for communities in the proposed 2020-21 budget. (Sidney Cohen/CBC)

"We didn't see anything for housing," either, he said.

Bonnetrouge couldn't say yet whether he would vote in favour of the budget. 

Yanik D'Aigle, a Yellowknife banker who ran as the Conservative Party candidate in the 2019 federal election, had a different take. 

Commenting on his own behalf, and not for the Conservative Party, D'Aigle said it's "a good budget" that looks to "address a lot of the social concerns that we have right across the North."

WATCH: Reporters scrum the finance minister on the budget:

Frame Lake MLA Kevin O'Reilly characterized the spending plan as "pretty much a steady-as-you-go budget." 

He's "quite concerned," however, about the territory's rising debt and what the government is doing to raise its own money.

O'Reilly floated the idea of new taxes — namely, a "resource tax" — as a possible solution.

A resource tax, he said, would be a tax on the resource itself, rather than on the profits made from that resource.

"These companies will take the money that they make from resource drilling and decide where they're going to file it, and then often, it's not here," said O'Reilly. He said such a tax could offer the government a more predictable source of revenue.

This is a refreshing change from the budgets I've looked at in the last assembly, and it's nice to see.- Kevin O'Reilly, MLA for Frame Lake

O'Reilly has voted against the budget in the past, but as of now, the regular MLA said he'll "probably" vote in favour of this latest fiscal plan.

To be sure, he said, it's still important to "go through the process of examining the different departments."

"This is a refreshing change from the budgets I've looked at in the last assembly, and it's nice to see."  

'A pretty uneventful budget'

"It was a pretty uneventful budget," said David Wasylciw, the founder of Open NWT, who has written about territorial politics for CBC.

"It would have been nice to see more, but talk about taking risks and actually doing more, is nice to see," he said.

In her budget address on Tuesday, Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek said the government will not be afraid to take risks, "because risk is where the opportunities arise."

Though this budget doesn't propose big spending risks, Wasylciw said the risk-taking of which Wawzonek speaks could come about in the way departments choose to run programs within their budget constraints.

"It's not about spending money," he said, "it's about the way they do business."

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