MLAs demand more fairness in budget cuts
John Todd took off his coat, gazed across the assembly floor and scolded MLAs for focusing on cuts in their ridings and missing the big picture.
Most averted his eyes and scribbled notes while the NWT’s finance minister began the job of selling his budget to MLAs during committee meetings in the legislative assembly this week.
“We will be judged not now but in the future,” Todd told them, saying that unless the cuts were made, Nunavut and the new western territory would inherit a huge debt.
The finance minister unveiled his budget Monday, but MLAs now have their chance to respond, and will then review it department by department and line by line.
Todd said he looked forward to a lively debate about the budget, not a litany of complaints about specific projects or jobs each MLA was losing in his or her riding.
“Frankly we haven’t had that debate,” Todd said. “It’s not a question of how many houses you’re going to get or if you’re going to get a health centre.”
Cuts distributed evenly?
Many MLAs have complained publicly and privately about the “fairness” in the budget, suggesting some ridings have taken the brunt of the $100 million in cuts while others have had it easier.
Kivallivik MLA Kevin O’Brien is the lone MLA who has spoken out against the government’s plan to keep fighting the deficit.
O’Brien said that now that other MLAs are starting to realize how hard this latest round of budget cuts will hurt their communities, he predicts they will be fighting tooth and nail to keep any jobs or capital projects in their ridings.
“All the money shouldn’t be dumped into certain members’ communities and the others get the dirty end of the stick,” O’Brien said in an interview Monday.
He says his ridings of Baker Lake and Arviat were “on the lean end of the scale” in terms of new spending. “I don’t think the equity was there for us.”
And Inuvik MLA Floyd Roland says his community continues to be one of the hardest hit.
Ordinary MLAs also reacted angrily this week to comments Todd made to reporters, saying he didn’t expect too much opposition to his budget since all MLAs had a hand in drafting it.
“This budget and the previous budget was worked out with consensus,” Todd said to reporters in the budget lock-up before he delivered his budget. “It is a budget that was developed in consultation with ordinary members.”
Under the revamped committee structure, ordinary MLAs now have more say in how the government departments will spend their shrinking dollars.
But getting a sneak preview of a spending plan doesn’t mean you agree with or accept everything in the budget, MLAs argued.
The chairman of the standing committee on government operations delivered his formal response to the budget on Tuesday.
Yellowknife North MLA Roy Erasmus said MLAs appreciated having a chance to shape the budget at the committee level, but pointed out several shortcomings in the process, including:
information provided by some departments was superficial;
information was slow in coming to committees;
more detailed breakdowns of the spending plans of departments are needed so MLAs and the public can better judge and scrutinize spending;
there was little concrete action arising from a committee of MLAs who set off last summer to look for investment opportunities;
the government may be moving too quickly on its community empowerment initiatives.
Won’t play dead
Iqaluit MLA Ed Picco said he didn’t like the suggestion that MLAs would go quietly into the night.
“I will not roll over and play dead when my community is being affected,” Picco said in his reply to the budget address.
“I did not come here to rubber stamp everything that was put in front of me.”
In an interview, Picco said he supported the government’s deficit-fighting plan, and was pleased to see a projected surplus.
“If, at the end of this $100 million we cut this year already, and there was no surplus or something to show for your pain, I think people would be pretty upset,” he said.
Picco says he plans to fight specific cuts for Iqaluit, but says his community fared better than some others.
“Overall for Iqaluit there is going to be more pain for us in quite a few instances, but a lot less than some other communities.”