After the Yukon Liberals unveiled another record-breaking budget of $1.5 billion Thursday, the premier said it shows signs of a maturing group as opposition parties pointed to shortcomings.
Speaking to reporters shortly after tabling the budget, which comes complete with no tax or fee changes, Premier Sandy Silver said he was pleased with some of the findings.
“We tasked government departments to reduce growth in government and spending and they have delivered,” Silver said, noting the “historically low increase” to the operations and maintenance cost as an example.
Operation and maintenance will cost about 1.9 per cent more than it did last year. While it is a still an increase, Silver noted both in his budget address and later to media that this year’s budget increase is much smaller than the previous 20-year average growth of 6.3 per cent.
“This budget demonstrates the maturity of our government as we now look at progress both ahead and also looking behind us,” the premier added.
Silver fielded numerous questions during last fall’s sitting about a leaked memo to CBC that suggested deputy ministers find up to a two per cent savings in their operations and maintenance budget. He likened it at the time to cutting growth and at points said he would not comment on an internal government document.
Meanwhile, not all parties were happy with the budget, as the Yukon Party’s interim leader Stacey Hassard wondered where the vision was.
“If I had to put it in one word or less, it would be underwhelming,” Hassard told media after question period. “There doesn’t appear to be any vision, we don’t see anything new, nothing jumped off the page for us.”
He also pointed to the impending carbon tax, which his party had frequently questioned the premier on during last fall’s sitting.
“I don’t know how the premier thinks that doing this in the fashion, especially the fashion he’s doing it, is going to not grow government and not create costs to government.”
Silver maintained that would not happen as a result of the levy.
Meanwhile: the budget also brings with it 160 new public service jobs. About 121 of those were in the Department of Health and Social Services – 40 to the former Salvation Army’s Centre of Hope and 51 for continuing care, including positions at the new Whistle Bend Place.
About 22 are for the Department of Highways and Public Works, and the remaining 17 are spread across other departments.
Included in the budget is $288 million set aside for capital projects, almost identical to what was spent in the existing budget.
The bigger project under that figure for the year is the French-language high school in Riverdale, which at $19 million will see construction begin this spring.
It also calls for $1.6 million as YG starts planning for a new school in the growing neighbourhood of Whistle Bend.
It’s expecting to spend more than $25 million over the next five years for work on that school, and a Finance department spokesperson confirmed this morning construction is expected to wrap up in 2024. Whether or not that means its doors will open to students that year is still unclear.
It’s also here where the lack of vision played in for Hassard: “those projects aren’t new, we knew those were coming,” he said.
He wasn’t alone in his criticism: the Yukon NDP’s Liz Hanson also had some choice words for the Liberal government.
She likened YG to “essentially dismiss(ing) the work of the employment standards board” by announcing earlier this week it will bump up the minimum wage to $12.71 per hour as of April.
The Employment Standards Board did a review of the wage in 2018 and suggested hiking it to $12.60 this year, but Hanson, whose party has been advocating to raise it to $15 since the 2016 election, worried that still wasn’t enough.
“Who’s going to live on $12.71 an hour?” she asked, pointing to the living wage of $18.57 an hour.
“So it’s the social equity aspect of this that really perturbs me as an individual and a New Democrat.”
As for Silver’s remarks on a maturing Liberal group, Hanson was not sold.
“Looking at where we start growing up as a government and start generating our own revenue” could be a good start, she said.
According to the budget, the lion’s share of YG’s revenue comes from Ottawa. That’s $1.211 billion out of $1.477 billion, or 82 per cent - spread out amongst a population that recently passed the 40,000 mark.
Hanson was encouraged by the inclusion of a First Nation procurement policy, which will be incorporated into the overarching policy set to take effect April 1. A hard date for the First Nation rules has not yet been fixed.
For his part, Silver also spoke to something that was noticeably absent in the budget for the first time in decades - capital money for the Shakwak project.
“It’s a tricky one,” the premier said when asked just what it could take to secure that money.
“This is a military standard road, we need to start looking at creative partnerships with Alaska and with the federal government in the States.”
Pleas to the federal U.S. government for money to maintain the Alaska Highway were to no avail, Highways and Public Works Minister Richard Mostyn had said earlier this year. “If Alaska isn’t willing to pay ... if we’re not going to see their contribution, we really do have to reconsider,” Silver added yesterday.
Meanwhile, when it comes to education, governments of the past have been plagued by the troubled Ross River school because of thawing permafrost and shifting ground – which earned a mention in Silver’s budget speech.
“We will spend $1.4 million this year to continue stabilization work for the community school,” he said, as YG looks to begin work to cool the site’s crawl space this summer.
That’s on top of the $7.1 million the school cost to build, nearly $2 million to re-level after it was closed in 2015 and a number of studies and repairs costing about $3 million since 2002.
Asked about the possibility of simply having a newer school built, Silver said the more permanent solution would have to involve the chief and council of the Ross River Dena Council on whose traditional territory the school sits.
“There’s such a great potential for that community to build and develop on their terms and we will follow their lead,” Silver said.
But until then, “we have an obligation to the kids, to the youth in that community to make sure they’re provided with quality education.
“So we’re going to make sure the school they have now is up to snuff and is safe for those students.”
According to its five-year capital plan, between $10 million and $25 million will be spent on the Ross River school into 2024, with spending expected in all of the next five fiscal years.
Overall, the premier explained the record-breaking $1.5 billion budget was the sign of a hot economy with high housing prices and aging and growing population.
“Last year was a boom as far as capital bills,” he said of the estimated $287.8 million spent in the current fiscal budget compared to $288 million in the 2019-20 budget.
“We want to attract people not to just come here and work, but to stay here, build their roots and continue to develop the mosaic that is Yukon.”
As for the long-term projection, he remained hopeful that the territory would be back in the black with a $5 million surplus for 2020-2021.
Crediting the Finance department with buying into the idea of finding efficiencies, he acknowledged that while “forecasts are exactly that,” he was confident the ship would be turned around.
“I really believe with that oversight, we have the tools and human resources and partnerships to make sure we do get to that surplus.”
As of right now, there are expected to be more surpluses in the years after 2021 as well.
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