GRAND FALLS-WINDSOR – While we may have been told money and politics do not belong in polite conversation, the realities of the province’s financial situation are such that modesty is being cast aside.
“We have to get a handle on our expenses,” Advanced Education, Skills and Labour Minister Al Hawkins said at the pre-budget consultation Jan. 22. “There’s only so far you can increase revenue.”
The 25 or so participants were split into groups of seven or eight and asked to answer a series of questions about where government should find efficiencies, what should be protected and what should be cut.
Health care emerged as the biggest concern for many people, topping the list of which departments should not see funding reduced.
Transportation, including roads and ferries, outpaced the categories of other general governance – including legislative functions, Service NL and income assistance – as the department people would be most willing to see reduced.
“In the discussion here tonight, there’s nothing that would be earthshattering, from what I’ve heard,” Hawkins told the Advertiser regarding the responses, adding that putting some of the recommendations into action would be ambitious.
This is the third year the provincial government has held similar budget consultations across Newfoundland and Labrador.
Grand Falls-Windsor resident Elmo Hewlett remembers in 2016, St. Joseph’s Parish Hall was packed. The number of participants turning out for consultations has fallen since then.
“People complain, but they don’t care,” he said.
His own top concern coming out of the meeting was how, despite amalgamation, expenditures for school boards have risen 56 per cent since 2003.
“People have still got the same concerns,” he said. “You come here, get the same ideas every year, but nothing changes.”
Hawkins said the 2016 budget landed the government in hot water for making unpopular choices regarding revenue. Those choices, he said, came from the consultation process.
He did not mince words when it came to the province’s fiscal outlook; net debt has reached a record $13.6 billion and the money spent servicing that debt each year is more than that spent on education.
“This is not an exercise just to get people out on a cold Monday night in Grand Falls-Windsor,” he told the room in his closing remarks.
For resident Janice Eisenhauer, the opportunity to canvas the opinions of a broad spectrum of people was a valuable experience, but she reserved judgment on whether it will prove effective in the long run.
“The only way to know if we were heard is if the provincial budget ends up taking all these consultations across the province into account,” she said after the meeting. “We have to work together to save our province.”