There are a lot of numbers in the NWT’s 2020 budget but, at heart, there isn’t a great deal of significant change as a new government works on finding its feet.
Senior bureaucrats on Tuesday characterized finance minister Caroline Wawzonek’s budget as a continuation of the previous government’s philosophy.
Wawzonek herself in effect told reporters to watch this space, saying the government will take time to evaluate what’s currently being done before starting to take more risk and make bigger changes.
Even so, there are plenty of details to pore over in the 2020 budget.
On this page, we’ll go through some of the fine print. You can also read our overall summary of the budget and the finance minister’s stated philosophy for the next four years.
The NWT government will be spending $42,000 per resident in 2020-21, significantly more than most other jurisdictions in Canada as the territory is a challenging place to deliver programs and services.
There are no cuts to ongoing programs and services, the NWT government said.
Instead, the NWT says there’s a $94-million spending increase – but, as we’ll see, that doesn’t mean you’ll be getting $94 million in new things. (Far from it.)
There are also no new taxes, except the pre-planned increase in carbon tax on July 1.
Here’s a sector-by-sector breakdown of some key changes we’ve chosen to highlight. Note that this is not an exhaustive list. If you don’t see something mentioned here, it may still have received some form of new funding.
Following a long-established plan, $4 million will be spent on leasing and operating the old Stanton building in Yellowknife, where 72 long-term care beds will be based.
$1.488 million in new spending is listed for mental health, addictions, home care, and community care services.
There’s also $179,000 for Avens, the Yellowknife seniors’ community.
Several bigger items related to health are not really entirely new and exciting:
$10 million associated with a federal Northern Wellness Agreement is listed as increased spending but the territory got a similar sum last year. In effect, this money maintains 10 staffing positions and a range of programs that have already been introduced.
$4.5 million is listed to pay for the equivalent of the new Stanton Territorial Hospital’s property tax. It’s a new thing the NWT has to pay for, and good news for the City of Yellowknife, but it’s not new money in the sense of directly creating something for residents that didn’t exist beforehand.
$2.58 million is listed for more staff, services, and equipment at Stanton Territorial Hospital – but this line item is really just setting in stone a funding change already made midway through last year. The change was to bring Stanton’s budget into line with the reality of operating costs there, which turned out to be slightly higher than the NWT had estimated.
The territory is putting an extra $2 million into the income assistance pot because it’s costing more each year.
There’s $604,000 in new money to expand the Northern Distance Learning program, a highly praised initiative that helps youth study by video link in smaller communities.
$319,000 is set aside for mental health, speech, and language specialists.
$10.6 million will be used to offset the increasing carbon tax. While this is technically new spending, it exists to make sure you don’t lose any more money when the carbon tax goes up, so it’s in effect a neutral change. More revenue is earned from the tax, and then more money goes back to you in turn.
$4.5 million is used to cover “increased short-term borrowing costs and other debt servicing requirements.” Again, it’s more money, but your pulse probably did not quicken as a result.
$705,000 is allocated to the “management and negotiation of offshore oil and gas resources.” There is not exactly much offshore oil and gas to worry about right now, but this money is designed to help the NWT government change that.
$337,000 in new money will help create a website that makes various government paperwork easier for residents to do online.
$176,000 will be spent on Beaufort Delta tourism to take advantage of the boost in numbers following the Inuvik-Tuk highway’s opening.
$92,000 will go toward increased enforcement and public safety at NWT parks in the North Slave, along the Ingraham Trail.
A funding commitment highlighted by the finance minister was $827,000 in “ongoing funding” to turn the territory’s integrated case management pilot into a permanent program.
Integrated case management helps guide vulnerable people through all the different departments and agencies to ensure they get the support they need.
Wawzonek used integrated case management as an example of how her government would be prepared to make bold moves in future.
“What are we going to do with it? Are we going to expand it? Where are we going to go with it? We’re going to take the courage to push it forward and actually learn something from it, learn what those barriers are and act on them,” she said. “That means pushing departments out of their comfort zones sometimes.”
Federal funding will see the RCMP given an extra $1.613 million, including money for more positions and “isolated post and housing requirements.”
There’s also $465,000, supported by Ottawa, to continue developing a strategy for tackling the issue of guns and gangs in the NWT.
$250,000 will go toward increased base funding for victim services.
The NWT’s air tankers (used to fight forest fires) are getting an extra $1.992 million to cover their expected operating costs.
There’s $2.325 million in total new money to help Bathurst, Bluenose-East, and boreal caribou herds.
More than $3.5 million in funding for Thaidene Nëné and two other NWT protected areas is included in this budget, but was actually first acquired and began being used last year. It’s not entirely new cash.
$659,000 will be spent on better maintenance of the Dempster Highway on the NWT side.
$390,000 has been found for permafrost-related work on the Dempster and Inuvik-Tuk highways.
The NWT government has created a special piggy bank of money to pursue programs and services that directly advance the new government’s mandate items.
It’ll be at least $25 million over four years. $10 million of that will be put forward this year.
The money doesn’t directly show up in the budget because it’ll come out of a reserve fund.
$25 million is a drop in the ocean of a $2-billion budget, but the money is designed to be used over and above whatever internal changes departments make to focus more of their existing money on new priorities.
“There’s a lot you can do with $25 million over a population the size of the NWT,” said Wawzonek.
“The budget of $2 billion that we do have – if we’re going to increase our evaluation and start to work more collaboratively, we can start to leverage the money that is there and start to achieve the targets we have.”
Where is there no new money?
The NWT Housing Corporation is reorganizing several million dollars of its own money to prioritize housing partnerships and homeownership – and prop up some existing services – but it isn’t getting any significant new cash injection, despite the territory’s ongoing housing crisis.
Bureaucrats said the NWT government was still talking to the federal government about unlocking more housing money, so extra cash could show up later this year. Indigenous governments will also be supported in their bids for federal cash, the minister said.
There was also no sign of significant new investment in child and family services, where major concerns about child welfare and understaffing were recently reported.