Mark Rendell
Mark Rendell

On The Ledge: The Latest Assembly Action

Short-term wiggle room, saving RRSPs and caribou cows, shaking up the airport and dealing with the land freeze around the capital

Over the past week, the legislative assembly saw a move to beef up security at Stanton Hospital, discussed the ongoing travails surrounding a broken turbine at Snare Falls, aired the shocking revelation the people aren’t that interested in commenting on devolution legislation and held the first reading of a bill that will make Deline the first self-governed community in the NWT.

Here’s some other things our Yellowknife MLAs were bringing to the floor.

Wiggle room for short-term borrowing

The legislative assembly voted the GNWT another $25 million in wiggle room on Wednesday, upping their short-term borrowing limit from $275 million to $300 million.

The move was needed to make a $25 million corporate income repayment to the federal government on March 31, said Finance Minister Michael Miltenberger. “The current limit will be exceeded by approximately $12 million once this payment is made. On April 1, 2015, the GNWT will once again be within the current limit, making this a short-term cash requirement, however a necessary one.”

Not all MLAs were keen on the government raising their short-term borrowing limit for the second time in two years: in 2012 they voted to raise the cap by $100 million, from $175 million to $275.

The most vocal critic was Range Lake MLA Daryl Dolynny, who was wary of giving the GNWT more borrowing power when, according to him, not all the money borrowed for last summer’s fire suppression has been fully accounted for.

“It makes it very difficult, extremely difficult for a Member on this side of the House to look at borrowing more money or allowing the increase of a borrowing limit when we haven’t done the full cost accounting, that full exercise which was promised by the Minister at least half a dozen times publicly,” said Dolynny.

Miltenberger assured Dolynny that the fire suppression numbers are before committee and will be tabled soon. He added that upping the credit limit doesn’t mean the government will be spending more.

“Like the borrowing limit on a credit card that I have, I have a ceiling on it, a borrowing limit. I very rarely get there, but it’s nice to know that I have it if I need it.”

Income support policy “out of step with the rest of the country”

The GNWT’s income support policy which forces people to cash in their RRSPs before receiving support “puts people into poverty and ensures that they stay there right through retirement and into old age,” said Frame Lake MLA Wendy Bisaro.

For the second week in a row, Bisaro drilled ECE Minister Jackson Lafferty on the policy, saying it was “out of step with the rest of the country.” In 10 of the 12 provinces and territories that Bisaro was able to gather information on, people who have saved money in RRSPs but have fallen on hard times don’t have to drain their RRSPs before accessing government support, as long as the RRSPs are “locked-in,” meaning they can’t be accessed until retirement.

“Do we value our elders? I keep hearing that we do, but this policy… ensures that our seniors, our elders, will have no savings to top up their Canada Pension Plan payments when they retire. It’s well known that seniors are often our poorest residents, usually because they have no pension other than Canada Pension Plan.”

Lafferty said he was open to suggestions for changing the policy, but that more work needed to be done to assess the costs associated with a policy change. He also said the program should be considered a “last resort.”

“When I speak of vulnerable citizens, I mean those that do not have anything to fall back on as opposed to RRSP, that there is financial support that is available to them,” he added.

Save the cows

Last Wednesday, Weledeh MLA Bob Bromley called on the government to close the caribou hunting season once the quota of female caribou has been filled.

“Adult female caribou are worth their weight in diamonds or gold or whatever it is that you value, yet in every case where we have established a quota and assigned a ratio of the number of bulls to number of cows, we have failed and vastly exceeded, sometimes by 100 percent, the cow harvest,” he said.

“We’ve clearly failed with caribou management and I can guarantee as a biologist and a keen observer that we will fail with the Bluenose-East herd unless this government gets up the gumption to close the season when the cow harvest is filled.”

Bromley’s comments came during a discussion of the $1 million reduction for wildlife research and management in this year’s Environment and Natural Resources budget. The reduction in research money has to do with several projects wrapping up at the end of the fiscal year.

“It did what it was intended to do, but we haven’t had that money added to the base in ENR, so our challenge is going to be to still do the work that’s required on caribou… we’re going to be working very hard internally to see how we can cover this off from within” said Michael Miltenberger.

Miltenberger echoed Bromley’s agitation over the decline of caribou, but pointed out that a lot of management plans have been put into place and any recovery is going to take a long time.

“We’ve had some restrictions in effect for five years, and I’ve heard many comments by folks saying it’s been five years, how come there’s no recovery yet? It’s because of the extent of the pressure on the herds. It’s taken 28 years to get down to 15,000 and it’s probably going to take that long to recover.”

Airport antics

Each year the Yellowknife Airport costs the GNWT around $2 million to run – an “unacceptable [amount]… especially [for] a government teetering on the edge of a financial cliff,” says Daryl Dolynny.

On Thursday, Dolynny pressed Transportation Minister Tom Beaulieu on the issue, citing at least seven reports that have been done over the past 20 years, looking at alternative airport governance models that might shift the financial burden away from the government. According to Dolynny, none of these reports have been acted upon and the most recent report, from March of last year, has not even been tabled in the legislative assembly.

Still, Dolynny brought up a February remark by Beaulieu where he said his department is gearing up for yet another study into airport governance.

“Again I ask the Minister, can he clarify what specifically is going to be uncovered that has not already been done at minimum seven times before?” asked Dolynny.

It will look at three options, responded Beaulieu: “a Crown corporation… [an] airport authority and even possibly using a GNWT revolving fund similar to the way we administer petroleum products.”

Dolynny accused Beaulieu of dragging his feet on the issue and “sloughing this responsibility onto the backs of the 18th Assembly.”

“We’re not sloughing the responsibility, but we’re looking at the timeline,” Beaulieu responded. “I realize that right now it’s costing us about $2 million to run the airport annually. If we were to do one simple math to determine how we’re going to recover that, we’d just be passing that $2 million on to the passengers who are flying through Yellowknife Airport”

Locked-up land

Despite a November 2015 expiry date on the interim land withdrawal for lands around Yellowknife, it looks like the City won’t be getting new chunks of land any time soon.

During a discussion of the budget for the Department of Lands, Wendy Bisaro pressed deputy minister Mark Warren about whether the land freeze around Yellowknife would be extended yet again.

He responded that the issue was tied up in aboriginal land claims. “So it has been the practice in the past, to the extent that those agreements are unsettled, that land withdrawals are maintained,” he said.

“I have to say, on behalf of my local government, that’s a very far in the future date in my estimation, when we’re going to get a land claim agreement with the local aboriginal group. So, you know, for my community government it severely hampers what they can do in terms of acquisition of land in and around the city,” said Bisaro.