Finance Minister Donna Harpauer promoted local investments in the hospital, highways and corrections centre, as well as funding increases for health, education and social services during her annual post-budget stop in Prince Albert Monday.
Harpauer has been touring the province since tabling the document on March 20, and the hundred or so gathered at the Prince Albert Inn was the largest crowd she has seen yet.
Following her introduction, outlining increased funding for health care, seniors, vulnerable families and classrooms while keeping taxes low, she jumped right into what is one of the biggest ticket items for P.A. in this year’s document, the $2.5 million in funding for pre-construction design costs for the Victoria Hospital.
After highlighting the announced increase in addictions funding as well as the launch of the rapid access to addictions medicine clinic opening in Prince Albert, she moved on to social services, highlighting the increased funding for community-based organizations, larger payments for foster families and money for transit assistance for those with disabilities.
She then turned to one of the province’s other big-ticket items this budget year — education.
The Saskatchewan party promised an increase of $26.2 million in the overall education budget, increasing that item by 1.4 per cent. Operating grants were also increased due to qualified independent schools and historical high schools due to increased enrolment.
In Prince Albert, Harpauer said, that looks like $89.1 million in total for the Saskatchewan Rivers School Division and $29.5 million for the Prince Albert Roman Catholic Separate School Division.
While education funding is up, education property taxes are remaining the same.
The increase to education funding is one area the opposition NDP has been critical of the government.
A chart shared by members of the provincial NDP showed that per-student spending has gone in this budget, an increase over both of the previous years. However, that same chart shows that the increase is still well-below the per-student mark in 2016-17, the year the Sask. Party cut the education budget by $50 million.
Speaking to media following her speech Monday, Harpauer defended her government’s spending on education.
“Saskatchewan funds our K-12 education among the highest in the country,” she said.
‘We know there is always more and more we could do in education and we do value education. But our record and our historical funding for education have far exceeded inflation, as well as enrollment increases.”
Harpauer argued the $26-million increase will ensure Saskatchewan remains among the jurisdictions with the highest per-student education funding in Canada.
“We do feel as though we strongly support our education sector.”
Harpauer also used her speech to highlight some of the individual infrastructure funding commitments that will benefit Prince Albert.
Aside from the hospital, Prince Albert will see the province contributing to improvements covering about 1,000 km of highway this year. That includes rehabilitating the Muskoday Bridge along Highway 3 and installing crash bars on the Riverside Drive overpass, where a truck got stuck last year after becoming wedged under the overpass.
The city is also receiving funding for contraband scanners at the Prince Albert Correctional Centre and for improvements at Pine Grove.
She stressed the rise in funding for municipal infrastructure, which, due to new agreements with the federal government, saw an 11 per cent boost compared to last year’s budget.
“What will also be very important for the City of Prince Albert and all of the municipalities surrounding P.A. is the injection we’re putting into the new bilateral agreements for infrastructure,” she told reporters.
‘We’ve already called for an intake, and we’ll be moving forward with quite a number of municipal projects where we’re partnering with municipalities and the federal government. That will help us go a long way We were falling between different programs, so this is starting up a new one again.”
Minister takes questions on first responder volunteer tax credit, funding for special care homes
The finance minister concluded her speech by opening the floor for questions and received two concerns from local residents.
The first was raised by Chrissy Halliday, who volunteers with Prince Albert North Search and Rescue (PANSAR).
While volunteer firefighters and medical first responders will be covered by a new $300 tax credit announced in the budget, volunteer search and rescue staff have been left out of the plan.
“Most chapters, like our own here in Prince Albert, have proceeded to do … additional training,” Halliday said.
“We personally pay for all of our equipment. The average equipment we carry with us costs between $1,500 and $2,000. Hearing about this tax credit, we were very excited. Within 24 hours, our excitement got squashed.”
Harpauer said this is a concern she has heard multiple times since the measure was announced, and that the government will be reviewing that concern.
“The tax credit was an election promise we weren’t able to implement until now because we were restrained fiscally,” she told reporters.
“I’ll be taking it to my colleagues. This budget has been written, so we can’t make any changes now, but it is something to consider in the future. I think there is a very valid case with these volunteers and their value as well.”
The other question was asked by Mont St. Joseph Home executive director Brian Martin.
Martin stood up and asked a question he has referred to finance ministers for at least the last three years.
He said that starting in the 1990s, when the province began to look at health care reform, it dropped a formula for consistent and predictable capital funding for special care homes to replace and repair equipment.
Last year, he said, Mont St. Joseph received a total of $16,000 in funding for that purpose, and for its first eight or nine years, it didn’t receive a dollar.
“I need to know if the government plans to introduce a consistent, predictable capital funding plan that would allow places like Mont. St. Joseph to plan accordingly,” he said.
Harpauer said that while they try to increase funding for that purpose every year, they don’t have a solid formula in place.
“I hear that you think that would be best,” she said.
“It reeks of common sense” to put a capital infrastructure funding formula in place, Martin said.
“I’m just urging the government to put it back into the areas it needs to investigate.”
P.A. best turnout yet
Harpauer congratulated Prince Albert on its turnout to the post-budget luncheon, which she said was the largest of her tour so far.
“I think this was absolutely awesome,” she said.
“You’ve got to be proud of Prince Albert because this was the largest gathering I’ve been able to speak to. Good on you.”
Mayor Greg Dionne wasn’t surprised.
“P.A. is interested in what happens with our city,” he said.
“I was very pleased, especially to hear we were the biggest crowd so far. It shows that we care and we’re engaged.”