Caroline Wawzonek addresses reporters ahead of publishing the territory's 2023-24 operating budget. Ollie Williams/Cabin Radio
The NWT’s finance minister says the territory’s operating surplus is expected to be $5 million this year – $173 million less than originally planned.
At a Thursday press conference, Caroline Wawzonek said the “significant drop” was largely due to wildfire and evacuation costs, though she added there “have been a number of other pressures” over the year.
When originally budgeting a $178-million surplus, the territory “could not have anticipated what would be coming this summer,” she said.
A surplus, in the GNWT’s current approach to budgeting, doesn’t mean spare cash or savings. It means money used to fund infrastructure projects like roads, schools, healthcare facilities or power plants, or alternatively used to pay off debt.
This is the second successive year that the territory has forecast a large surplus only to see it be almost completely wiped out.
In 2022-23, the NWT forecast an operating surplus of $131 million but later said that was expected to have plunged to $3 million by the time all accounting was complete. Devastating floods in communities like Hay River led to some $104 million in extra spending that year on flooding alone.
Wawzonek said on Thursday that despite this year’s “expenditure shocks,” the territory’s long-term economic outlook remains stable. She pointed out that under federal disaster funding policies, Ottawa is expected to cover up to 90 percent of eligible expenses.
“The federal government has been engaged with us quite actively to ensure that this money is being advanced faster and sooner, which will certainly help us avoid having to take on additional debt,” she said.
The territory currently has a debt ceiling of $1.8 billion. In February, the GNWT anticipated its total debt to be $1.5 billion by the end of March 2024.