Remember the old show Fantasy Island, which always started with the character named Tattoo running around shouting, “The plane, boss! The plane!” as a new load of rich clients arrived?
Well, Tattoo now works in the Yukon premier’s office, and he watches the skies for the “money plane,” as they call the federal Challengers that bring big-spending ministers from Ottawa for photo ops.
Tattoo’s G-plated Yukon government SUV was recently seen careening up Two Mile Hill to Erik Nielsen International to meet the money plane, after the feds published statistics showing they plan to increase the Yukon’s transfer payments a whopping $65 million for the fiscal year starting next April.
That will boost next year’s total transfer payment to $809 million. It’s an eight per cent rise, which is in the range we’ve seen for the last decade. But as the budget gets bigger, an eight per cent rise also gets bigger.
So our new premier has $65 million in new money to play with. If he was getting worried by all those grim-faced deputy ministers and their briefing binders full of critical issues, he can breathe a sigh of relief – $65 million is about $2,000 per Yukoner, and that’s a lot of happiness to spread around.
If your favourite interest group – whoops, I mean worthy community initiative – can’t get a nice cheque this year, then either you’re not asking loudly enough or the cabinet really hates you.
The money plane from Ottawa has always been important to the Yukon, and to Yukon politics. A glance at the Yukon World’s election edition for 1904 shows campaigners for ex-commissioner Fred Congden bragging about how their man convinced Ottawa to spend a whopping $250,000 more in the Yukon than it collected here (not to mention the construction of over 200 miles of new sled trails and wagon roads).
Fast forward 100 years and add quite a few zeroes.
The Yukon government will be trying to manage everyone’s expectations downwards. They’ll tell you about cost of living increases, pension costs, health-care spending, fuel expenses and the other government budget items that ratchet up relentlessly every year.
But just say it again to yourself, slowly and with relish: “Sixty-five million bucks!”
It really is a lot of money.
So what could they spend it on?
Well, now that the quad lift is installed at Sima, the community must be clamouring for tax cuts for weekly economics columnists.
But beyond no-brainers like that, what else could the government do?
One idea is to give Community Services money to fast-track land to tackle the housing crisis. There should be more land made available for families and investors to build houses, townhouses, condos and apartment buildings. The government should also invest in more social housing. If anyone says we don’t have enough urban planners, engineers, drafters and land surveyors, they should be slapped with a bag of money and told to hire some.
Another idea is energy. The government should get its independent power producer policy, which it has been working on for years, on paper. Then we can start building micro-hydro, dams, windmills, wood-pellet plants or whatever gives us the most power per dollar. Government cash could be invested in projects led by Yukon Energy, or in partnership projects with First Nations, or in public-private partnerships.
If we’re sitting around in five years with more binders of public consultation feedback and are burning diesel like it’s 1952, then shame on us.
Education is another opportunity to spend money. We already spend more per student than any province but, hey, why not spend even more if it could reduce our drop-out rate? A condition here would be some creativity and sound project management by the Department of Education (please allow me to digress into fantasy fiction for a moment), but education reform projects in other places have done useful things with extra money.
For example, you could have more tutoring and after-school programs for at-risk youth. You could have more than one counsellor per 300 high school students. Ontario has hired more teachers to do “credit salvage” tutoring in high school. You could have more learning assistants, faster learning disability diagnoses, more early-childhood programming for at-risk preschoolers and so on.
The key thing is to use the money plane’s windfall to invest for the future. Housing is long term. Quality energy assets will deliver benefits for decades, as we know from the 1960s and 1970s assets that give us power at a fraction the cost that people in Yellowknife pay. And it’s hard to think of a longer-term investment than education.
The premier has a large staff to think of ways to spend the $65 million. But I think every Yukoner involved in a community organization should pitch in, and send him a few ideas.
After all, as Tattoo could tell you, your episode of Fantasy Island won’t have a happy ending unless you have a dream too.
Keith Halliday is a Yukon economist and author of the Aurore of the Yukon series of historical children’s adventure novels.