Late start to the legislative sitting raises questions about spending

Yukon's legislative assembly will reconvene on April 7 for its last sitting before this year's territorial election, the government has announced.

Yukon’s legislative assembly will reconvene on April 7 for its last sitting before this year’s territorial election, the government has announced.

The April start date means the sitting will start after the beginning of the 2016-17 fiscal year, when the 2015-16 budget will have already expired. In an email to the News, cabinet spokesperson Elaine Schiman explained that last week’s tabling of the federal budget affected the timing.

“The Yukon government waited until after the federal budget was brought down on March 22 to hear what was in it, and to then determine final details of our budget and announce the date of our recall of the legislature,” she wrote.

Premier Darrell Pasloski said in a news release that the 2016-17 budget will “grow our economy and create jobs while protecting the critical services – such as health care and education – that make Yukon a great place to live.”

But the late start date is raising some questions about due process.

When the legislature reconvenes after the beginning of the fiscal year on April 1, the government has to issue a special warrant ahead of time, which allows it to spend money until a budget is passed.

This year’s special warrant weighs in at $235 million, and will cover spending from April 1 to 30.

But Liberal Leader Sandy Silver said issuing special warrants, which can’t be debated until after the fact, shows “a lack of respect” for the legislative assembly.

The items in the warrant will be discussed once the sitting begins. But Silver said there’s not much point in debating taxpayer money that’s already been spent.

“That’s not democracy, in my opinion,” he said.

Schiman responded to Silver’s comments by saying that special warrants are one of the government’s options for ensuring that programs and services continue to be delivered.

“This is a well-accepted and appropriate way for government to authorize spending,” she wrote.

The government will also table an interim supply bill at the start of the sitting, which will give it authority to spend money until the 2016-17 budget is passed.

But this is hardly the first time the Yukon government has turned to special warrants. In fact, they’ve become almost routinely used in the Yukon over the last 15 years.

This is the second year in a row that this type of warrant has been issued. And the Yukon Party government issued similar warrants, generally for more than $200 million, in every fiscal year from 2004 to 2010.

To be fair, the Yukon Party isn’t alone in using special warrants. The Liberal government under Pat Duncan issued a special warrant in March 2002, as did Piers McDonald’s NDP government in 2000, though there was an election looming at the time.

And smaller special warrants have been used in most of the last 20 years. Those are generally issued when individual departments need the authority to spend more money to keep services running until the end of the fiscal year. In total, 50 special warrants have been issued since 1987.

But Robert Ascah, a fellow in the Institute for Public Economics at the University of Alberta, said special warrants should typically be used only in exceptional circumstances – for instance, when a new government has just been elected and needs more time to bring in a budget. He said unanticipated emergencies like floods or fires might also require extra spending when the assembly isn’t sitting.

But he said he doesn’t understand why a government would routinely reconvene the legislature so late that it has to issue a special warrant.

“The problem with the use of special warrants is that cabinet avoids the scrutiny of the legislative assembly,” he said. “I just don’t think that that’s a good way of running governments.”

He said democracy demands that any money from the public purse be debated.

Ascah was skeptical of the Yukon government’s explanation that the late federal budget meant it needed more time to finalize its own finances. He said provincial and territorial finance ministers typically meet with their federal counterpart well before the end of the fiscal year, and get a pretty good sense of how to plan their own budgets.

For his part, Silver said he’s interested in fixed dates for the legislative assembly, to make sure the legislature reconvenes before the end of each fiscal year.

“We need to change the way that we use the legislative assembly,” he said.

But Ascah suggested a simpler solution.

“Just get the job done,” he said. “It can’t be that difficult. You’re basically paid and elected to do that.”

Contact Maura Forrest at

maura.forrest@yukon-news.com

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