Deficit spending necessary to meeting needs of growing Sask. population say Prince Albert MLAs

Herald file photo. The Saskatchewan Legislature.

Prince Albert MLAs Joe Hargrave and Alana Ross said deficit spending is necessary to address challenges created by a growing population following the announcement of the 2024-25 provincial budget on Wednesday.

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer’s budget calls for $20.1 billion in spending, with $19.9 billion in forecasted revenue. If that forecast holds, the province will run a $273.2 million deficit this upcoming fiscal year.

“We still need to be able to invest in the people of Saskatchewan, and that’s what our capital budget does,” Ross said in an interview Thursday afternoon. “We’re growing. Our population is growing. We know we need to invest in schools. We know we need to invest in health, and we in Prince Albert are going to benefit immensely from that. It’s something that is necessary and has to be done.”

The province will spend $7.6 billion on healthcare in 2024-25, with $180 million tagged for the Prince Albert Victoria Hospital Redevelopment Project. The project will increase the number of beds at Victoria Hospital to 242, with construction on a new tower set to begin this spring and end in 2028.

Other infrastructure investments include funds for a new Francophone pre-K to Grade 12 school that will replace Ecole Valois. That funding is part of $165.9 million announced for 11 new or consolidated school projects and renovations.

The budget also includes $2 million in operating funding for the Rose Garden Hospice.

“We’re investing more money in our classrooms and we’re investing money in (health)care with hospitals, and the municipal revenue sharing is up,” said Hargrave, who also serves as Ministry of Procurement and SaskBuilds.

“This budget meets our needs in Prince Albert very well.”

The infrastructure spending list also included spending on two northern projects already under construction: a new school in La Loche to replace Ducharme Elementary School, and a new three-story Long-Term Care Home in La Ronge. The school in La Loche should be completed by Spring 2025, while the LTC in La Ronge should be finished by late 2026.

Hargrave and Ross both cited declining natural resource revenue as the biggest reason the province faced a deficit in 2024-25. The province expects to receive $1.1 billion in oil and natural gas revenue—an increase of $98.8 million from the year before—but potash revenue has plummeted. The province expects to receive $796.4 million this fiscal year, a $580.1 million drop from 2023-24.

“It wasn’t by choice,” Hargrave said when asked about the deficit. “It’s what happens when royalties from potash (drop). Potash prices tanked severely…. That was pretty major, and that’s nobody’s fault because the industry never predicted that, nobody predicted that.”

The province anticipates an increase in income tax revenue due to expected high employment levels in 2024-25. The government also expects an increase in population will lead to more economic activity, which means more PST revenue. The province expects to see a 17.5 per cent increase.

Wednesday’s budget included $741 million in infrastructure spending, roughly $417 million of which will go towards the Ministry of Highways.

The province has also agreed to freeze the small business tax rate at one per cent for an additional year, a move welcomed by small business advocates like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB).

“Small businesses need this tax break, otherwise their corporate income tax bill would have doubled at a time when they can least afford it,” CFIB provincial affairs director Brianna Solberg said in a press release. “While the difference between one and two per cent might seem minor, for a small business earning $500,000 in income, that’s the difference between $5,000 and $10,000 in corporation taxes. This tax freeze will help give more businesses the chance to survive.”

The province also announced a $16.7 million funding increase to implement the Provincial Approach to Homelessness. Roughly $7.2 million of that funding will cover emergency shelter operations across the province, while $9.5 million will go towards capital investment housing projects in Regina and Saskatoon. That funding was part of $1.5 billion in total funding for the Ministry of Social Services.

NDP leader blasts government for deficit spending

NDP leader Carla Beck described Wednesday’s provincial budget as an “election budget” that did little to help families struggling to pay their bills.

Beck said families are still hurting from cost-of-living increases, and they won’t find help from the provincial government.

“It’s like they don’t understand how much people in this province are struggling right now, so that was disappointing,” Beck said during an interview Wednesday afternoon.

The NDP has called for the province to stop collecting the Gas Tax to help families. That’s something Alberta did in 2023, and Manitoba started doing on Jan. 1, 2024.

Saskatchewan’s Gas Tax currently sits at 15 cent per litre on gasoline and diesel, and nine cents per litre on propane. Beck said that’s an easy way to help struggling residents, and it’s disappointing the province didn’t follow Manitoba and Alberta’s lead.

“We’ve seen every other prairie province do it,” she said. “If they didn’t like our idea, at least we were expecting we might see something from this government, but we didn’t. We saw more of the same.”

Beck also criticized the province’s decision to table another budget with deficit spending. She compared the current government under Scott Moe to the old PC government led by Grant Devine, which accumulated $1.5 billion in debt during its first four years in office.

Beck said residents need to trust the government will spend money wisely, and that’s not happening.

“(They are) spending recklessly, spending on the wrong priorities, and spending in ways that actually don’t benefit the people of the province that don’t address their number one concern, the cost of living,” Beck said. “I think, adds evidence to our observation, that this is a tired and out-of-touch government.”

Beck said the province’s current labour dispute with the Saskatchewan Teachers’ Federation is an example of their inability to spend wisely. The two parties are locked in a debate over classroom complexity, and Beck said the most prudent decision would be to send the issue to an arbitrator. That would allow provincial and STF negotiators to resume working on a new deal.

“I talked to many teachers today (Wednesday) saying the very same thing: they don’t want to be here, but if they don’t stand up and say, ‘we cannot continue to underfund and disrespect and disregard the conditions our kids are trying to learn in, we are being foolish about our future in this province,’” Beck said.

When asked how this budget helps families facing a cost-of-living crisis, Hargrave said the province’s decision to stop collecting the Carbon Tax is one of many things that will help low income residents save money. He also said the province continues to ensure roughly 112,000 low income residents are not paying income tax, which also helps with affordability.

Ross said even with recent cost increases, Saskatchewan still is one of the most affordable places in Canada for a family to live.

“When you look at some of the measures other provinces have implemented, it doesn’t begin to compare with how affordable it is to live in Saskatchewan,” she said.