“Over the next two months, my government will be carrying out a review of spending priorities,” said new Premier Silver’s first speech from the throne.
That was a month ago. Although Silver has not communicated much detail about the scope and intensity of the review, it is certain that budget decisions are being made now. It’s been over three months since the election, so he’s had plenty of time to get his feet under the premier’s desk.
I have talked with several savvy figures from Yukon industry associations. They are not taking any chances, and have been actively meeting people from the Premier’s office, talking to ministers and writing letters.
There was a mini-brouhaha in January about whether the Yukon government had a $8 million accounting deficit and, if it did, whether this was the fault of the old government or the new one. It doesn’t actually matter much on a $1.392 billion budget if there is a $8 million deficit or a $8 million surplus. It’s only a 0.6 per cent difference.
It has been known for several years, however, that the Yukon Party government was rapidly spending down the Yukon’s rainy day fund. The cash deficit in each of the last three years was between $40 million and $95 million. The rainy day fund was $223 million in March 2015, and the last Yukon Party budget forecast it to be $57 million at the end of this March.
The Yukon government can’t keep burning that much cash every year if it only has $57 million in the bank. Unless it borrows of course.
Which brings us to the spending review. Like it or not, the new government is probably going to be forced to trim spending.
If you are one of the many Yukon volunteers who runs an organization doing important work for our community, this may mean your favourite funding is on the chopping block. This may mean a major reduction, or reductions in growth. The latter is less painful immediately, but over time inflation will eat away at the real value of your funding.
So what should volunteers do? The first thing is to come up with what big-city consultants call a government relations strategy. This will be very different in a small place like the Yukon, and for different organizations, but there are a few general principles.
The first is making a list of the government officials you need to talk to. In a small jurisdiction like the Yukon, the premier is also the minister of finance. He will make all the final decisions. So think about starting with him.
Don’t take no for an answer. Sometimes Yukon government officials like to give volunteer groups the impression that this is like Ottawa and ministers are god-like figures who don’t meet with plebs. But we’re still in the Yukon. After campaigning on open and accountable government, he should take your meeting.
If you are having trouble getting through, you have a choice about how persistent to be. I was once involved in an organization whose minister was too busy to see us. The late Todd Hardy recommended we set up a call roster and have someone from our group call the minister’s office every 15 minutes until he would see us.
It worked like a charm.
Yukoners are often uncomfortable with being this annoying. But ask yourself what message the premier is sending if he wants to bounce you down the chain of command.
Also, let the minister in charge of your department and his or her senior officials know you are asking to see the premier as minister of finance. After you’ve made your case to the lead dog, you’ll have to work with the rest of the team.
You also have to think about what you are going to say at your meeting. I sometimes observe Yukon advocacy groups focus too much on getting the meeting, and not what they will do once in the room.
Everyone smiles, agrees it was a nice meeting, and nothing happens.
You need to have a specific “ask,” usually with hard numbers in it. For example, you need assurances your funding will rise at the rate of inflation or more. Or you need a 10 per cent increase because the price of something important to your organization went up by 25 per cent or you want your group to serve an extra 200 Yukoners.
You also need to “sell” the government on your organization. Don’t assume your funding is an entitlement, even if you’ve been receiving it for years.
This means you also need to communicate your organization’s value to the Yukon government, again with as many specific numbers as possible. How many Yukoners did you help? What statistics do you have showing how much you helped them? What did you do on things in the new government’s election platform, like boosting economic growth or reducing carbon emissions?
You should also let the premier and ministers know what services you provide which, if your organization didn’t exist, might fall into the government’s lap. Remember when Raven Recycling had to shut down its recycling drop-off temporarily due to lack of funds? This raised the possibility, alarming to many in government, that they would have to do the job themselves.
You have to be careful about not seeming to threaten the people you are meeting with. But you should be calm and factual about decisions having consequences. If you get cut 10 per cent in the spending review, then the choices you’ll have to make to cope with the cut might include things like closing one day a week or reducing the number of Yukoners you serve by 25 per cent.
You also have to think about the opposition parties and the media. Even though it is your right as citizens to see your local opposition MLA, in the Yukon ministers can get nervous about this and sometimes upset that you are going “political.” On the other hand, it helps concentrate the minds of ministers if they know you know other people in the legislature. Plus, if the new government does take action that hurts your group, you may need opposition MLAs in the future.
One way to thread this needle is to call up some opposition MLAs and ask if you can take them for coffee to tell them about your group. Don’t mention your specific asks or ministerial meetings, but make sure they know about all the good work your organization does.
As for the media, hopefully you’ll never need to talk to them. But if things go wrong, the information you prepared for your meeting with the premier will be handy. If you do end up in the paper after painful cuts, instead of just complaining you’ll want to be able to say specifically how your organization helps Yukoners and what the cuts will force you to stop doing.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the MacBride Museum’s Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels. He is a Ma Murray award-winner for best columnist.