by Richard Gleeson
Northern News Services
NNSL (Feb 14/97) - The seniors fuel subsidy is testing the balance of power in the legislature.
Ordinary members yesterday used their majority to pass a motion urging government to restore the subsidy program until a comprehensive review is completed.
But what effect that motion has, if any, remains to be seen.
"I can't just dismiss a motion of the house, but I have to determine if its workable, at what cost and where the money will come from," said Charles Dent (left), minister of education, culture and employment.
"This sends a very clear message to the minister and cabinet and if the minister doesn't follow the direction of the motion then members have an opportunity to readdress this and speak to it and take whatever measures they feel appropriate," said Jake Ootes, chairman of the ordinary members caucus.
Though they have no power to make the government act, together ordinary members have the power to prevent the government from proceeding.
Most immediately, the cabinet will need the ordinary MLAs' co-operation to implement the second year of its cost-cutting strategy, as detailed in the 1997-98 budget.
Though he did not say they would be holding up budget debate, slated to wrap up early next month, Ootes indicated ordinary members intend to see their concerns addressed before budget deliberations finish.
"This budget is before us right now and we want some action on this issue," he said.
Last fall the government changed the eligibility criteria for the subsidy. Today it is available only to those who qualify for income assistance.
"There's a huge disparity in the way we treat our seniors in the North," said Yellowknife North MLA Roy Erasmus, who moved the motion to reconsider to restore the subsidy.
Erasmus and other MLAs said the government provides no support for seniors living in their own homes, but pays all the living expenses of those in social housing, regardless of income.
The motion suggested the minister of education, culture and employment raise the $200,000 the program cost when it was cut by charging those in public housing a nominal rent.
Dent said his department had done a preliminary analysis of the changes suggested in the motion. It concluded they would cost the government up to $500,000 more than the program that was cut.
"Based on this proposal, that money would have to be obtained from seniors living in low income public housing," said Dent.
The minister also said the motion is ill-timed. A comprehensive review of subsidies to seniors, prompted by ordinary members in the fall, is due in May.
In any case, he added, winter, when fuel subsidies are needed most, is almost over.