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MLAs to fight budget cuts
Regular MLAs say 'austerity measures' which are expected to be unveiled next Wednesday are not the way to jump start territory's economy

John McFadden
Northern News Services
Friday, May 27, 2016

MLAs return to the legislative assembly on Tuesday and they'll be getting down to serious business on Wednesday afternoon when Finance Minister Robert C. McLeod delivers his first budget.

The operations and maintenance budget will lay out how the government expects to spend about a billion dollars over the next year to operate its programs and services.

McLeod has made it clear on several occasions earlier this year that the government is looking to trim about $150 million in spending over the next five years in order to prevent expenses from exceeding revenue.

The coming session is a relatively lengthy one - running until June 29.

After the budget is introduced, MLAs will discuss and debate it with input from senior bureaucrats with the various departments.

At the end of the day, cabinet needs the support of at least three of the 11 regular MLAs in order for the budget to pass.

Cory Vanthuyne, Yellowknife North MLA, said he expects his fellow regular members to put their FEET down on cuts to programs and services.

"We're not accepting that approach. The term austerity measures keeps coming up or aggressive reductions. We've not run a deficit in years," Vanthuyne said. "We're not seeing the need to take drastic measures and reductions at this point in time. We want to see a more sustainable approach."

Vanthuyne said he would not be surprised if taxes are raised on alcohol and tobacco in the budget and thinks the amalgamation of certain departments is possible.

Despite his hesitation to cut, he does not expect a showdown between the government and regular members over the budget and expects some common ground will be found between the two sides during the debates.

Vanthuyne held a constituency meeting on Wednesday night and said he was hearing more of the same from folks who attended - they want the government to identify waste and redundancy and make their cuts there, not to programs and services.

Like Vanthuyne, this will be the first budget session for fellow rookie MLA Julie Green, who represents Yellowknife Centre. She agrees with Vanthuyne that kick-starting the economy and keeping the cost of living down are important, but not at the expense of what she describes as badly needed social programs and services.

"Trying to generate a surplus in order to build roads is not my preferred way of spending any extra money that we have," said Green. "Given the existing needs for seniors, housing for homeless people, affordable housing for other people, we have a lot of human priorities so I hope the government has received the message that it needs to continue its investment in people and not go the route of austerity measures in order to build infrastructure."

Green said she does expect to see cuts to programs and jobs but she is not about to predict what that is going to look like.

She said she is not against cuts in spending as long as they are made in the right areas, adding that the government is top-heavy and it is the senior levels of the bureaucracy where there is room to trim.

"Education, Culture and Employment for example - even after 75 per cent of its budget goes out the door to the school boards and district educational authorities there is still 25 per cent that's spent at headquarters in Yellowknife," said Green.

"I would like to see a mandate across the government to study the amount of management we have and make recommendations on whether that can be reduced."

Green said over the month of budget debate, like Vanthuyne, she is at this point cautiously optimistic that some common ground can be found.

"As regular members, we can vote to delete items from the budget but we can't vote to put money in," Green said.

"If the cuts are already there what we will focus on is getting them reinstated in order to get everyone on board to pass the budget by the end of the session. So there will be a period of negotiation."

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