Budget day has come and gone at the Saskatchewan Legislature. This year, the Saskatchewan Party is looking to put more shovels in the ground.
The government budgeted $14.17 billion in spending for 2016, more than any other year in Saskatchewan’s history. Despite being hit hard by the collapsing price of oil last year, the 2015/16 Saskatchewan Budget shows a surplus of $107 million.
One of the budget’s biggest impacts is the Saskatchewan Builds Capital Plan. The Plan, consisting of a whopping $5.8 billion over four years, will fund upgrades to the province’s highways, schools, health care facilities, and other areas. The plan involves $700 million in borrowed money for notable infrastructure projects, including the proposed $211 million Regina bypass project and another $337.8 million in highway construction.
“The Saskatchewan Builds Capital Plan is ambitious,” said Minister of Finance Ken Krawetz. “But at a time when we face revenue challenges, our government faced a choice. Do we delay and cancel projects, or do we keep building?”
“We chose to keep building.”
Saskatchewan’s Crown corporations, such as SaskPower, SaskEnergy, and SaskTel, will spend another $2 billion this year on infrastructure. This spending includes a $1.2 billion project to SaskPower to fix transmission and power distribution systems. The infrastructure funding comes at a crucial time for the province as Saskatchewan’s highway system has not grown as fast as Saskatchewan’s population.
While the fund is scheduled to build brand new schools in Warman, Gravelbourg, and Hudson Bay , Saskatchewan’s existing schools are in need of repair. A 2013 report by the Saskatchewan School Board Association discovered that, “beyond the need for new school facilities, approximately 75 percent of the roofing systems in Saskatchewan schools will fail within the next five years. Furthermore, the average age of Saskatchewan schools is approximately 50 years.”
Despite this report, additional money will not be pledged to repair existing schools in this year’s budget. The Ministry of Education’s budget has also been cut by $4.2 million this year.
“The government won’t pass the benefit of higher revenues onto everyday families,” said Trent Wotherspoon, the Opposition’s Finance critic. Cam Broten, the leader of the Saskatchewan NDP, agrees, saying, “There’s no commitment here to actually fix the things that families are caring about the most.”
Crowded classrooms, limited school resources, and the failure to address infrastructure in hospitals and senior care homes are some of the NDP’s biggest concerns.
Advanced education will also take a financial hit under this year’s budget, as both the Innovation and Science Fund and the Science and Technology Research Fund have had their funding cut off. Between the two, Saskatchewan’s Ministry of Advanced Education will be losing money to the tune of more than $15 million.
For University of Regina President Vianne Timmons, today’s budget announcement is difficult news. “I have no doubt that today's provincial budget will necessitate difficult decisions at our university,” she said. The U of R, along with the rest of Saskatchewan’s universities and colleges, is facing high cuts under this year’s budget. More than $12 million is being cut from the funding envelope for universities and colleges, about 2.5 per cent of their annual funds.
The budget also contained bad news for several demographic groups. Saskatchewan’s Graduate Retention Plan, a key part of keeping Saskatchewan’s brightest minds in the province after graduating, saw drastic changes. Instead of running for seven years with a 10 per cent tax rebate in the first four and a 20 per cent tax rebate in the last three, the revised program will run for 10 years at a constant 10 per cent rebate.
Out of all provincial agencies, the Saskatchewan Housing Corporation was hit hardest by the budget axe, facing $5.5 million in cuts this fiscal year. Saskatchewan Finance Minister Ken Krawetz stated that for the next year, Sask Housing will run mostly on internal funds.
Cuts are coming to the Seniors’ Drug Plan, as the maximum qualification income for the program has been lowered to $65,515 per year. Early estimates say more than 6,000 Saskatchewan seniors will lose their Plan eligibility after the changes take effect on July 1.
The province’s Research and Development Tax Credit has also been drastically changed. The Tax Credit is now non-refundable and shrinking from 15 per cent to 10 per cent of qualifying expenditures.
Saskatchewan’s Active Families Benefit is also seeing restrictions, as only families with an annual income less than $60,000 will qualify. Saskatchewan’s Employment Supplement is also seeing a change in rules, as now only families with children 12 years of age or younger will qualify. In past years, families with children up to 18 years of age were eligible.
Krawetz announced that he was pleased with this year’s budget, his last as finance minister. “I’m proud of the last five budgets, and I’m especially proud of this one,” he said.
Wotherspoon said it’s the same old song and dance from the Sask Party each year, but the auditors may be hearing a different tune.
“The public accounts, when the ink dries at the end of the year, may tell a different story.”