Are special warrants warranted?

Finance Minister Dennis Fentie is using special warrants to spend $285 million of next year’s budget and to add $12 million to this…

Finance Minister Dennis Fentie is using special warrants to spend $285 million of next year’s budget and to add $12 million to this year’s tally.

That’s stirring an ethical debate in the corridors of power.

Both the Liberals and NDP charge Fentie is abusing his power using the warrants because they allow him to spend public money without having to face scrutiny in the legislature.

“It simply speaks to arrogance,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell in an interview last week.

Every Yukon government since 1984 has used special warrants.

But a glance into history also reveals the Yukon Party government has used warrants in unprecedented numbers since taking power in 2002.

When a government repeatedly uses warrants to spend money, questions of abuse rightly follow, said University of British Columbia economist Jim Brander.

“You do need some flexibility to cover unforeseen contingencies and random events,” Brander said of warrants.

“But obviously, they are intended for unforeseen contingencies, which suggests they shouldn’t be used that often. If it’s happening every year, or four years in a row, that suggests that it is being misused.”

Governments are elected to make judgments on behalf of voters, but their power is subject to checks and balances in the legislature, said Brander.

“So, we don’t elect a premier or prime minister who can do anything,” he said. “The finance minister has to do things subject to the scrutiny of the legislature, which of course includes the opposition.”

Why? “Because we don’t trust one politician absolutely,” said Brander.

Many politicians are onside with Brander’s ethics.

In an interview last week, Mitchell accused Fentie of treating the public purse as if he owns it.

Unlike past governments, Fentie has used special warrants with alarming frequency, said Mitchell.

“No premier has done it on an annual basis,” he said. “It’s supposed to be the exception; now it’s become the rule.”

Since fiscal year 1984-1985, only three years have passed when a warrant hasn’t been used by the government of the day, according to records provided by the department of finance.

But since taking power in November 2002, the Yukon Party government has used 13 special warrants, according to the same records.

In 2004-2005, Fentie used four special warrants.

The only governments to exceed that yearly use of warrants were the Progressive Conservatives and Tony Penikett’s NDP, each using five in one fiscal year in the mid-1980s.

So why have the warrants been used yet again this year?

The legislature has been delayed in re-convening due to Whitehorse hosting the Canada Winter Games, said Fentie in an interview from Ottawa on Tuesday.

“Not one penny” of the spending in the warrants is anything but necessary money, he added.

“They’re wages for government employees; they’re needs for education and health care,” said Fentie.

“So the argument by the opposition that this is a bad thing doesn’t hold any water because they would have to then articulate to the Yukon public where they would invest the money in the warrants.

“What would they reduce? Wages? Education? Health care?”

The warrants been used “only where required,” he added, before launching into an attack.

 “Overall, we’ve used warrants to ensure the opposition doesn’t play games as I’ve experienced in the past by opposition, where they’ve left the government without spending authority,” said Fentie.

“So the argument the opposition’s making that this is bad planning is quite the contrary. It’s good planning and that’s why we’re doing it.”

Special warrants are supposed to be reserved for emergencies, said Brander.

And the amount of use people deem as acceptable is best determined at the ballot box, he added.

“You need this facility, but it shouldn’t be abused,” said Brander. “It’s up to the voters to decide if it has been.”