Pre budget announcements suggest a ‘false budget’: Hardy

Once upon a time, Finance ministers kept budgets a secret. Not anymore. For weeks, Premier Dennis Fentie has been hyping his fourth budget, to be…

Once upon a time, Finance ministers kept budgets a secret.

Not anymore.

For weeks, Premier Dennis Fentie has been hyping his fourth budget, to be released tomorrow.

It will be worth $790 million.

And it’ll be another record breaker, Fentie’s third in a row, topping the $784 million he tabled in 2005-06 and the $679 million in 2004-05.

Most of it will go to operations and maintenance expenditures, which topped $577 million last year.

And last week, before a Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce luncheon and again at the Yukon Party’s AGM, Fentie revealed the capital expenditures will top $190 million in fiscal 2006/’07.

That’s down from the $206 million last year, but it’s still major cash.

And the multi-million-dollar question is how much of it will be new money, and how much will be re-allocated from previous budgets?

And what’s Fentie spending it on?

“I’m trying to figure out how you spend $190 million in capital in one year. That is a substantial amount of money,” said Official Opposition leader Todd Hardy.

“It’s not $190 million in new money, there’s no question about it,” Hardy said Tuesday.

“You have the Carmacks school. How much money was voted in last year’s budget and how much has to be re-voted this year because the money wasn’t spent?”

The government has given several hints in pre-budget announcements over the past week, including $7 million for the Yukon Housing Corporation’s mortgage lending programs and $5.8 million for new government computers.

Once again, the capital budget’s big winner is likely to be Highways and Public Works.

Last week, minister Glenn Hart announced $35 million for construction on the international Shakwak project near Destruction Bay and Beaver Creek.

Some of that money comes from a US government grant to Yukon contractors, for projects like a new bridge across the Donjek River.

“A bunch of (the money) will be highway work,” said Liberal leader Arthur Mitchell.

“They’ll carry forward with the Dawson and Watson Lake health centres, and they’ll be some planning for a health centre in Haines Junction,” said Mitchell.

“A certain amount of the money will be to complete the housing for the Canada Winter Games. We really don’t know what else.”

Hart also announced “forthcoming investments in Yukon’s emergency response capacity,” which means upgrades to fire halls, new fire tanker trucks and firefighting gear, emergency communications equipment and rescue boats.

And a substantial chunk of the capital budget could go towards designing a prison facility, said Hardy.

“A lot of us are hearing major rumblings that there is going to be a major announcement about the jail, and that it’s going to be extremely expensive.”

Hart wouldn’t say whether a new prison facility design is in the cards.

“You’ll find out tomorrow,” he said on Wednesday.

There’s a certain strategy to announcing capital projects before the budget is released, said Hardy.

“(Fentie) has used this method in the past. What he’s trying to do is get two bounces out of every announcement, so you pre-announce and when you give your budget speech you announce it all over again.”

By using a $257-million special warrant, which the government received two weeks ago, Fentie also avoids scrutiny from the legislative assembly, said Hardy.

“It denies us the opportunity to scrutinize the spending before it actually happens. The spending will have happened before we even discuss the budget.

“It could have been avoided, if (Fentie) had brought us back into the legislative assembly … in February.”

Last week, rogue Education minister John Edzerza announced $200,000 for a new portable school in Burwash Landing.

But that’s in doubt after Fentie contradicted Edzerza, denying he’s financing a school in the village.

Students will continue to be bused 15 kilometres down the Alaska Highway to attend Kluane Lake School in Destruction Bay.

Edzerza could not be reached for comment before press time.

“There’s apparently money in the budget for something,” said Mitchell. “(Edzerza) thought it was for a portable classroom, but I guess you can bring a building out there and hang a sign on it and call it anything you choose to call it.”

The government has made cash promises to groups that haven’t even asked, said Hardy.

“We have heard from quite a few groups that are being given money they didn’t even ask for, and they are very uncomfortable with that.

“Even though they may be appreciative, every one of them has said this is pure electioneering. They’re trying to buy them off, they’re trying to give them money and keep them quiet.”

In the fourth year of a mandate it’s easy for a government to release a “false budget,” said Hardy.

“This is a go-for-broke budget. (Fentie) could announce a $250- million budget and say he is going to spend it. If he forms the government again, he’ll lapse most of it and bail himself out, to keep himself from going into deficit.

“If he doesn’t win the election, the next government is stuck with canceling projects.

“He can make a million promises, and he doesn’t have to keep any of them.”

Fentie could initiate a 30-day election campaign at any time, but has repeatedly said he’ll wait until the fall.