Premier Kathy Dunderdale is looking to find around $100 million in government waste, but critics are skeptical she can do it.
The province’s fiscal situation dominated the first question period of the House of Assembly Tuesday since the October election.
The government is asking all of its departments to find three per cent budget cuts, but during question period, Dunderdale revealed that certain things would be off limits.
“Front-line health and education services will be exempted. Policing services will be exempted. Child, Youth and Family Services will be exempted. Income support will be exempted,” Dunderdale said in response to a question in the House.
“There are all kinds of areas where one can look for savings, Mr. Speaker. We do it all of the time. We are doing a very focused look right now.”
Three per cent of the province’s overall budget would amount to around $250 million in cuts, but Dunderdale said overall they’re looking to save less than that — more like $100 million.
“We can still look at travel. We can look at administration and wherever it makes sense to have an examination of where savings can be found. We need to do it,” Dunderdale told reporters.
“It’s something that we should be doing on a regular basis anyway because it’s just good fiscal management.”
The government is forecasting a nearly $500-million deficit this year, due to issues with oil production and the loss of Atlantic Accord transfer payments from the federal government.
Liberal Leader Dwight Ball said the $100 million in savings should be pretty easy for the government to do, but he questioned the government’s long-term fiscal planning.
“We haven’t seen a plan to spend money, and now we don’t see a plan on how to save money,” Ball said. “Without looking at the budget details of it, I think that $100 million of a $7 billion budget shouldn’t be that hard to find.”
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael wasn’t so quick to accept the notion of budget cuts, though.
“I guess I’m still wondering what it is that she’s expecting to find,” Michael said. “Is it that they’ve identified that there are problems in some areas that spending is going on that shouldn’t be happening? If not, why are they doing this?”
She said she’d be opposed to the government trying to use technology to replace people for government services, and generally, she said she’s skeptical of the idea to shrink the size of the public service.
However, that’s definitely something that’s on Dunderdale’s mind. She said she won’t entertain the idea of layoffs, but if they can reduce the number of public employees through attrition, that’s something they’ll want to consider.
“The public service is growing and has been growing steadily over the last eight years,” Dunderdale said. “So we’re certainly not going to be laying people off but we’re going to look at attrition to see if we can manage growth.”
The idea of cuts to the public service didn’t sit well with Carol Furlong, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Association of Public and Private Employees.
“Some front-line public services will be affected by this and if they’re not going to fill the jobs that are created through attrition, then we’re going to have vacancies which means that public services are going to be cut,” Furlong said.
She said the government shouldn’t be looking at permanent job cuts as a means to solve a temporary budget shortfall.
“For the life of me, I don’t understand what it’s about,” Furlong said. “I don’t see any need to reduce the services to the people of the province.”