GNWT budget focuses on preserving services and jobs – Hay River mayor cautiously optimistic about projections – MLA wants information on starting midwife services in community

Robert Bouchard, Hay River North MLA

On May 24, Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger released the GNWT’s 2012-2013 operations and maintenance budget – a financial plan that Hay River Mayor Ken Latour calls “responsible.”

The budget, which forecasts a surplus, focuses on maintaining current services and jobs, but moves infrastructure spending into the future.

Latour said he is thankful the budget is protecting current jobs.

“We are in a better position than a lot of jurisdictions,” he noted. “We are looking at maintaining the level of services we have now, instead of making cuts.”

The mayor said his only concerns with the budget involve the projected growth, pointing to the $59 million in increased revenue and wondering if it is all coming from inflation or projected growth.

“Are their projected revenues overly optimistic?” he asked. “They’re being pretty positive and I hope it works out that way.”

Latour also noted some positives for Hay River in the budget, including the nearly $11 million allocated for sustainable resource development and economic diversification.
“Those are two things that are really important to Hay River,” he said.

There is also $9.3 million put aside to implement a final devolution agreement – something else Latour believes will benefit the town.

“There’s a fair amount of positions that would come here from Ottawa, and revenue that leaves the territory that would come back,” he noted.

Hay River resident Elise Marie is less optimistic about the budget.

She described it as “rearranging dinner seating on a sinking ship,” instead of status quo.

“The whole thing depends on very optimistic ideas about the business outlook, hoping there won’t be any forest fires, and some important cuts to some health programs,” Marie said. “More specifically, the cuts are to programs that would produce future savings and resources, and there is nothing in it that can be expected to stimulate the economy.”

In Question Period following the budget address, Hay River North MLA Robert Bouchard criticized the lack of a midwifery program in the NWT.

“Hay River is one of the communities where a lot of births originate, but few, if any, actually take place within the community,” he said.

Bouchard wanted to know when midwife positions would start being offered in communities.

Health and Social Services Minister Tom Beaulieu said there are plans to submit a business plan for the 2013-2014 fiscal year.

“Midwifery would be an important part of the health system,” Beaulieu said.
Gayla Thunstrom, vice president of the UNW, praised the budget for its job protection.

“We’re back to the 2008 numbers for jobs,” she said. “Yes, it’s a cautious budget, but it’s protecting the current jobs and services and we aren’t seeing any new taxes.”

In presenting the $1.4-billion budget to the legislative assembly, Miltenberger followed the tradition among finance ministers of reflecting budget trends in their footwear.

Wearing sturdy, worn-in, yet shined dress shoes, Miltenberger called it a “status-quo” budget, which is the first in a four-year cycle.

Miltenberger said this budget – and the next one – will focus on maintaining the programs and services currently offered by the government.
With a surplus of $74 million, this is the first surplus budget in five years.
Miltenberger said the GNWT also has plans for a surplus in next year’s budget.

Using the surpluses to rebuild cash reserves, the government plans to address infrastructure needs in the third and fourth years of this budget cycle.

Miltenberger said the plan is to then start focusing on roads, schools, airports and other public services and facilities.

Despite the surplus, total debt is expected to reach $656 million by March 2013 – up $140.2 million from last year.

While the borrowing limit has been raised to $800 million, up from $600 million, Miltenberger said the GNWT is not in a position to borrow funds for operations and expenditures.

“We use the borrowing limit to make strategic investments,” he said. “The watchwords for this year and next are fiscal responsibility.”

The budget shows an increase in spending of just under four per cent.
The major spending in the 2012-2013 budget is for social programs – $818 million will go for education, health care, social services, housing, policing and corrections.

Another $1.2 million is going into a program to support the transition between public and market rentals, while $1 million will fund the previously announced new public housing rent scale.

Comparing numbers from the 2011-2012 budget to the 2012-2013 budget, funding has been cut from the departments of Health and Social Services, Environment and Natural Resources, and Industry, Tourism and Investment.

For example, Health and Social Services is seeing its funding drop by nearly $10 million, from $358.79 million to $349.92 million.
However, Miltenberger said funding from the GNWT hasn’t been cut.

The decreases are due to sunset funding – special funding that is not being renewed. For example,  federal spending for energy programs to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources has expired.