Municipalities pepper provincial ministers with infrastructure inquiries

Premier Scott Moe at the bear pit session for Municipalities of Saskatchewan in Regina. /YouTube screenshot

Premier Scott Moe and members of the cabinet answered questions across a number of portfolios during the annual Bear Pit that concluded the Municipalities of Saskatchewan’s virtual convention on Wednesday.

Many participants of the more than one hour long session asked about infrastructure.

The bear pit would normally provide for an in-person opportunity for mayors and councillors to directly ask questions of government officials. Instead, it was hosted virtually with members of cabinet and the Premier from the Double Tree Hotel and moderated by Regina City Councillor Lori Bresciani, who is also a director for Municipalities of Saskatchewan.

“This bear pit is a real opportunity for your cabinet, your provincial cabinet in Saskatchewan to really pull back the curtain and have a peak into what is happening on main streets in community after community across the province,” Moe said.

“We have great insight into what is on the minds of our local main street ground level representatives across Saskatchewan and for that we greatly appreciate this time. It’s informative for us. I hope it’s informative for you.”

Ministers who participated included Don McMorris, Donna Harpauer, Fred Bradshaw, Warren Kaeding, Lori Carr, Jim Reiter, Dustin Duncan, Gene Makowsky, Don Morgan, Paul Merriman, Gord Wyant, Everett Hindley, Christine Tell and Jeremy Harrison. Laura Ross, David Merrit and Bronwyn Eyre were unable to attend.

A question from Eatonia asked about grants for repaving streets. McMorris, who was quite popular for questions on the day,  pointed to the Urban Highway Connector Program and the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program (ICIP) which were mentioned in Moe’s Monday address to open the convention. Highways Minister Bradshaw expanded on that idea.

“We have enhanced the Urban Connector Highway Program. There is quite a bit more money this year — $7.2 million.”

Bradshaw added that this year’s highway budget is $648 million with another $300 million in stimulus for the next two years.

“We are hoping to really improve the highways around this province.”

Later there was a question asking if the government would commit to freezing revenue sharing for two years at 2020-2021 levels to assist with the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. McMorris said that a number of urban and rural municipalities have raised the issue with him. McMorris also brought up the Municipal Economic Enhancement Program (MEEP). The revenue sharing is currently set at three quarters of one per cent of PST.

“It’s a two year delay so what impact will that have in two years. We know it is going to be down, I think the Finance Minister would say that we don’t have all of the numbers in yet, we are not exactly sure,”

Anecdotally, McMorris said that he was surprised by how much spending has remained in the province during the pandemic.

 “More people have stayed in the province and they have been spending their money here. That may not be PST, but real estate and so many other industries have done relatively well throughout this pandemic. So we know the PST is going be … the extent we are not exactly sure,” he added.

“I cannot answer what the budget will look like in three year’s time. We do know that there is a decrease.“

McMorris also answered a question about extending the MEEP for another two years and both he and Moe would not commit to an extension or having that program in the future.

 “It was one-time funding and I have certainly heard a lot from municipalities on how appreciative they were not only of the funding but how it flowed so quickly. There were not a lot of strings attached to it and so it got into the communities and then into infrastructure almost immediately,” McMorris said.

Later he added that the extenuating circumstances of the shutdown at the beginning of the pandemic led to the creation of MEEP.

McMorris explained that infrastructure funding works when all three levels of government work together.

Other topics included  financial opportunities for some Agricultural Societies in the province, advice on being a new councillor, support for a  National Pharmacare program and concerns about losing the air traffic control tower in Regina among others.