Critics say massive budget lacks a compass

Governments use budgets to spend money and build visions. And on Thursday, as Premier Dennis Fentie, also Finance minister, clutched a new pair of…

Governments use budgets to spend money and build visions.

And on Thursday, as Premier Dennis Fentie, also Finance minister, clutched a new pair of black loafers after tabling this year’s $862-million budget he stressed his government’s target is long-term growth.

It’s the first of his second mandate and the largest in Yukon history.

“Four years ago, $400-$500 million — that’s all that was available,” said Fentie.

“Today we’re at $800-plus million, we have a healthy financial position, unlike the former Liberal government; we’re no longer getting qualified audits and we have established a fiscal relationship with Canada that contributes greatly in our ability to maintain a sustainable financial position well into the future,” he said.

“The budget’s clearly an investment in continuance and consistency of direction for this territory. Frankly, I think that’s why Yukoners … put back into office an incumbent government.”

That budget includes $3.24 million to design a new correctional facility in Whitehorse, $2.7 million for highway upgrades, $650,000 over two years to help train older workers to re-enter the workforce, $2.1 million to recruit and keep health-care workers, $1 million for a fire hall in Golden Horn, $9.2 million to expand the Whitehorse Airport, $1.8 million for an interpretive centre at Tombstone Park, $6.5 million for computer upgrades and $614,000 to help improve skills in First Nations governments.

Spending is up across most government departments, as are corporate tax revenues — though transfer payments from Ottawa and money from natural gas production are down.

But critics say the biggest item in Fentie’s government grocery list is a deficit of direction — other than up.

They point to the small increases across government as signaling a dearth of vision in the Yukon Party to help those who need support most.

The budget’s lack of new spending for social assistance rates, child-care grants for parents, new health-care facilities in Dawson City, a climate-change research centre at Yukon College or new schools in Whitehorse fuels their fire.

“This seems to be just a keep-on-goin’ budget with no real sense of new vision, no sense of commitment to the very things this premier campaigned on and has been promising people,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.

“I don’t think there is a clear investment or a clear vision. I think it’s a little of something for everyone, increases as necessary to departments, but no, ‘Here’s why we were elected and here’s what we hope to achieve and here’s what we’re going to be proud of at the end of the day.’”

Mitchell is disappointed by what isn’t in the budget, he said.

So is NDP leader Todd Hardy.

“It’s a hard budget to identify in the sense that it’s not an environmental budget or necessarily an economic budget, it’s kind of just a vague — ‘We’ve got a lot of money, and here’s where we’re going to spend it, but if you’re not part of the areas we like you’re just going to have to suffer,’” said Hardy, who has returned to the legislature after a long battle with leukemia.

Both opposition leaders described the lack of new money for those receiving welfare as “unacceptable.”

“If we’re doing so well out there, why isn’t some of that money being given to the people that need it most?” asked Hardy.

The government is still working on improvements to the social assistance regime that will help people move off of welfare and into jobs, said Fentie.

“This government will come forward in a way that we address social assistance in this territory in a very positive, constructive way,” he said. However, he gave no timelines for future changes.

The same held true for grants to parents for childcare.

Despite ongoing pressure from child-care workers to increase grants to parents — to allow day cares to raise fees and, in turn, wages for their workers, without making day care too expensive for parents — the latest budget has no money for grant increases.

“This is not an austerity budget, except for some people,” said Mitchell, wryly.

Despite delaying the opening of the legislature until late April to prepare the budget, there hasn’t been enough time to address grants for parents, replied Fentie.

“That’s all coming,” he said. “You can’t do that all in one year. We’re taking our job here very seriously. We’re not going to be pressured by people who think we should be hurrying. We’ve got to get this done right.”

Budgets often see a surplus of spin: more money in one area is a boon for one party and a scandal for another.

The biggest victim in this year’s budget appears to be the environment.

Fentie highlighted spending increases for upgrading the Yukon’s land and animal database, the large amount of protected land in the territory as well as $15 million in still unbudgeted commitments towards the hydroelectric grid as “advancing our agenda” on the environment and climate change.

Mitchell isn’t buying it.

“It’s a little bit of smoke and mirrors,” he said. “To address climate change there is $145,000 in this budget for the climate-change action plan. That’s a plan that won’t even be ready to be implemented until 2008.”

The figure is less than two-hundredths of one per cent of the entire budget and less than what the Environment department has been given to spend on new office furniture and computers, said Mitchell.

“I think that speaks volumes on the real belief that this Environment minister has on climate change.”

Hardy was also critical of poor environmental commitments, pointing to a lack of money to look into air-quality standards and increase environmental testing.

The Environment department budget has gone up slightly — including a 54-per-cent spending increase on “communications.”

Fentie’s latest budget also contained a large amount of “lapses,” or money that just wasn’t spent from the last one, said Hardy.

Despite being part of last year’s announcements, Fentie is re-announcing $1.8 million in commitments for a senior’s home in Haines Junction, he said.

But there are gems to be found in the budget’s millions, said both Mitchell and Hardy.

Mitchell is encouraged by further investments in the Safer Communities and Neighbourhoods office.

Hardy gave praise for money committed to helping older workers re-enter the workforce and address the territory’s labour shortage.

Taxpayers will also likely be happy with Fentie’s spending increases, as tax increases aren’t being used to pay for them.

Money is also being spent to begin addressing some of the recommendations made by Sheila Fraser, Canada’s auditor general, after her scathing assessment of waste and malaise at the department of Highways and Public Works.

On top of improvements to several highways that Fraser identified as needed, a $350,000 information-management system for the property management branch is in the budget, as is a contract tendering system worth $40,000.

But despite Fentie’s commitment to “strategic industries,” spending on economic development is actually down.

The business and trade branch at the department of Economic Development sees a 21-per-cent cut in the budget compared to last year, and the strategic industries branch sees a 31-per-cent trim.

Spending on office furniture and computers at Economic Development is up 77 per cent, however.

Operation and maintenance figures at the Film and Sound Commission are down 24 per cent, though Finance officials said the figures represent a smaller interest in some of the commission’s grant programs.

Health and Social Services’ capital budget is up 53 per cent, thanks mostly to about $6.9 million allocated for the multi-level care facility in Watson Lake, which should be completed this year, said the officials.

And policing services will cost Yukoners $15.5 million in 2007-2008, up 11 per cent.

What isn’t there, however, are increases for people who need help, said Mitchell.

“These are some of the least empowered people in our society,” he said of people on social assistance.

“They’re not large in numbers but they’re large in need, but they don’t have as many groups coming in behind them.

“I think it’s just not a priority of this government.”

Asked to respond to Mitchell’s criticisms of a boring, stay-the-course budget, a smile came to Fentie’s face.

“It’s the first time I’ve heard the opposition actually grasp something like that,” he said. “It is a keep-on-going (budget),” said Fentie.

“That’s why we got re-elected.”