Another provincial budget has come and gone, and after the initial 72-hour news cycle, life has returned to its pre-budget state.
Complaints will continue from those sectors which felt short-changed by the budget, but realistically everyone knew provincial revenues were down by $968 million and that the government had to make hard choices. Actually, my biggest surprise is that it was as generous as it was.
They could have introduced whopping income tax increases, but given our provincial economy and demographics, that did not seem to be a good option. Perhaps they knew that the seniors’ supplemental increase was going to be $2.25 a month, which is barely enough to buy a small tin of generic brand cat food. Yes, I know that there was an annual increase of approximately $80 for prescription drugs for seniors, but that is a damn sight less than increases to income and/or property taxes. And jigging royalties at a time of low commodity prices is hardly a way to encourage resource development or to prevent further job layoffs.
Alternatively, the government could have made deep cuts in spending to health, education and social programs in order to balance the budget; or tried spending their way into prosperity, and dramatically increase the debt; or do a combination of the two, which was the option selected.
Deeply cutting public programs is the last resort of any government. A government will only do it when its back is against the wall, as was the case during former Premier Roy Romanow’s tenure. There was no way Romanow wanted to close hospitals and do battle with nurses, teachers and public unions. But when the bank account is in the red, and credit has dried up, push comes to shove.
A large portion of provincial revenues comes from resources and thus we are subject to global commodity prices. There are good years and bad years. The frequently asked question is, where did the money go in the good years?
For starters, this government started rebuilding our provincial roadway structure. It also started sharing revenues with the municipalities, something previous governments did not do. Supposedly, that was going to help cities and towns with infrastructure without putting pressure on property taxes. (I said supposedly!)
We already spend $3.7 billion dollars to educate roughly 173,000 students and close to 50 cents of every tax dollar goes into health care. And let’s face it, if you doubled the funding to health and education, the cry would still be that it isn’t enough. Will any government tackle health and education with a goal to revamping how the money is spent? No, because it is political suicide; so we will continue to throw new (and borrowed) money at old problems, knowing nothing will change.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau graciously welcomed refugees to our country, and Saskatchewan opened its arms to a proportionate number of those newcomers. However, our premier asked the federal government for financial support to help settle these new families, which included increased costs for health, education and social services. No money was forthcoming from Trudeau. For education alone, the province increased funding by $5.4 million specifically for Syrian refugees and even that is probably not enough.
We also have increased health care and social services funding for the same purpose. Why isn’t the federal government helping the provinces with these costs? I appreciate that debt is debt regardless of the level of government, but at least at the federal level all Canadians are on the hook, whereas provincially a little more than a million people pay the price.
The only real surprise for me was that the government allocated zero funding for a new bridge for Prince Albert. This is the gateway to the north and our vast resources. It really hit home on the long weekend when we were caught in a two-and-a-half hour line up to cross the bridge in Prince Albert because the one bridge that exists is undergoing maintenance and repair.
If ever a new bridge was needed, it is in Prince Albert. It is particularly irksome when you think Saskatoon seemingly builds a new bridge with each neighbourhood expansion and gets support from the province to do so – and let’s not forget the Global Transportation Hub expenditures in Regina.
The biggest public reaction seemed to be losing funding for five urban parks, but with funding for Wascana Centre Authority (WCA) and Meewasin Valley Authority (MVA) still intact, at least for this year. I was surprised to learn that WCA receives $3.618 million yearly, compared to our MVA’s $740,000, particularly since the MVA’s jurisdiction goes beyond the city limits. However, Saskatoon’s revenue sharing from the province is roughly $6 million more than Regina receives and the revenue sharing pool was increased by 2.4 per cent. (Interestingly enough, no one commented on the wisdom of spending hundreds of millions of dollars on a stadium, art gallery or swimming pools.)
I admit to disappointment, but am resigned, to an increased provincial debt. We are spending future revenues today, and if we are blessed with sunny days in the years to come, people will demand more rather than realizing we have already spent that future.