Finance Minister Donna Harpauer made her long-awaited post-budget stop and speech in Prince Albert Tuesday to trump what the government says is a plan to get the province’s finances “back on track.”
Her original day booked to speak was postponed due to the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy. Harpauer is the MLA for Humboldt. Each Chamber speaker has a donation made in their name, in lieu of payment. Harpauer donated hers to the Wounded Warrior Project in support of Humboldt first responders.
She stayed on message, heralding the lack of tax increases in the provincial budget and measures taken to cut costs and reduce spending, such as the forthcoming suspension of the rental housing supplement. She also spoke about other changes, such as the removal of the PST exemption on used car sales and increased spending in the areas of health care and social services.
The finance minister compared Saskatchewan’s plan to that of other provinces, where carbon taxes have been implemented and in many cases, budgets are expected to remain in deficit for some time.
“(An) aspect that seems to be very rare is our commitment to bring the budget back to balance,” she said, referencing Manitoba’s $500-million hole, despite receiving over $2 billion in equalization. She also mentioned Alberta’s $8.8 billion deficit, and its plan to balance the budget in 2024, instead of the previously promised 2019.
Quebec, she said, did balance its budget, but relied on $11.7 billion in equalization payments. Those payments, she said, represent 10 per cent of that province’s revenue.
“Unlike other jurisdictions, we have a plan to deal with our deficit, we have a plan to get back to balance and that plan is on track.”
“Our government made tough decisions to move away from reliance on volatile resource revenues. We developed this budget through the lens of the economy. We wanted to deliver a budget that keeps Saskatchewan on track by controlling spending, delivering high quality programs and services for Saskatchewan people, by investing in infrastructure, but keeping our economy strong and returning to balance by 2019-20.”
Harpauer wasn’t the only MLA in attendance. The Sask. Party brought along area politicians Joe Hargrave, Delbert Hirsch, Nadine Wilson and Premier Scott Moe. The NDP came with Prince Albert Northcote MLA Nicole Rancourt and Finance Critic Cathy Sproule.
Sproule, who is attending each of Harpauer’s post budget talks, said it’s the same rosy picture she’s seen Harpauer paint elsewhere in the province. “I’ve heard the speech a few times now and I think clearly the government is trying to paint a pretty picture of the financial affairs of the province.”
“I think what isn’t being said is some of the things that are really affecting Saskatchewan people. One of my biggest concerns is that this budget doesn’t give any hope for Saskatchewan families. They’ve seen prices of everything go up, including power rates. Even the refund fees for apple juice boxes have gone up. Things are going up and up, but there’s no sort of hope for Saskatchewan families in this budget.”
Sproule rejected the suggestion that the hope might be in the form of a projected surplus in 2019-20.
“Again, what’s not being talked about is the fact that in this year’s budget they found an additional $300 million just with the pension accrual adjustment. It really is a $600 million deficit if they had done the projections the same way as last year,” she said.
“They’re using a pension … adjustment to say they’re on their way to balance. It’s a very ambitious story being told right now, and a very optimistic story. The numbers will come out next summer, in July, when we see the public accounts. The real story always comes out in the public accounts reporting.”
Sproule also criticized the government for the way it has increased the debt. She said the way debt charges are “exploding” resembles the “Nike swoop.”
While Sproule criticized Harpauer’s plan, the finance minister also took the chance to criticize some budget feedback from NDP leader Ryan Meili, who sat down with the Daily Herald last week.
Meili suggested the funding increase in health and social services is due to an increase in the number of people accessing care, and not due to an increase in services.
Harpauer rejected that claim.
“We do a lot of wraparound services now, especially in our major centres with community-based organizations we work with and fund on the prevention side of bringing kids into care,” she said.
“I think it’s a little disingenuous to say this is just because of increases, and not acknowledge that some of the increases in the social services budget is to increase funding for community-based organizations that do the heavy lifting. To just say it’s because of caseload is not representing it in an accurate manner.”