Saskatchewan holds line on spending with flat revenue in tight, balanced budget

REGINA – Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall says “boring is good” when it comes to a provincial budget that holds the line on spending and doesn’t increase taxes.

The budget tabled Wednesday includes $14.07 billion in revenue and $14 billion in spending — leaving a thin surplus of $71 million.

“If this budget keeps us on the road to steady growth — that is the theme of budget, which is a little boring admittedly — if the take-away is that this is sort of boring because it’s about steady growth for Saskatchewan, and that’s a big difference from where this province was just a few years ago, then I’ll take it,” said Wall.

As usual, the biggest chunk of the budget is for health care. Health costs account for nearly $5 billion of the budget, including $60.5 million for a surgical wait-list initiative.

There’s $800,000 to develop a house-call program for seniors to keep them out of hospitals, $2.2 million for 500 more child-care spaces, $815,000 to implement an anti-bullying and cyberbullying plan and $50 million for a new stadium in Regina.

Finance Minister Ken Krawetz says the province had to keep spending in check because revenue is down 0.7 per cent compared with last year.

“It is a balanced budget. It contains no tax increases. It controls spending, while still making important investments in infrastructure and important investments in people,” said Krawetz.

Despite the tight budget, Krawetz says the government decided not to raise the education part of property taxes to pay for things such as roads and bridges — something Wall recently mused about.

But the budget also doesn’t save for the future.

The document states that the province won’t put money into a fund for future development until the $3.8-billion debt is paid off — despite a report recommendation that a savings fund created using non-renewable resource revenues should be a high priority.

The report said the province should put a cap of 26 per cent on the amount of resource revenue it uses for purposes other than deposits to the fund.

Krawetz said the money just isn’t there this year.

“I don’t have any loose change kicking around,” he said.

“If we have windfall revenue on the non-renewable resource side, and it exceeds $3.1 billion, and it’s more than 26 per cent, I daresay our cabinet and our caucus are going to look at opportunities to create the fund. At the moment, we want to pay down debt.”

The Opposition NDP said the decision breaks a promise Wall made last fall to try to save money for the future while also paying off the debt.

“It’s a flip-flop as far as the premier’s commitment to this,” said NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon. “It’s a lost opportunity for the next generation to take … (what) we’ve been presented currently out of this period of economic strength and resource wealth to put some of those dollars away for the long term.”

The premier says it’s still an option, noting the final decision has not yet been made on the legislation for the fund. But he also says many Saskatchewan residents have told members of the legislature that they want to see the debt paid first.

The NDP said it’s also concerned that the budget doesn’t allocate more money for seniors care homes.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour says the government didn’t address growing income inequality, inadequate royalty and corporate tax rates and underfunded school systems.

Meanwhile, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation likes that the province decided not to raise the education part of property taxes.

“I think it’s great news that they didn’t take the easy way out and raise taxes. We’re glad to see that they continue to look at ways of making the government more efficient instead of just simply asking the taxpayer to pay more money,” said federation prairie director Colin Craig.

There was also praise from the provincial auditor who is “very excited” that the government has shifted how it reports the budget.

Saskatchewan is changing its focus to a summary budget, which takes into account all areas of government, including Crown corporations.

The province also used to present a budget for the General Revenue Fund, but that just looked at operational spending and not the Crowns. The auditor has said two sets of books was misleading and confusing for people.

Acting provincial auditor Judy Ferguson says this will be easier for people to understand.

“It really truly is the complete picture and the government, when they’re talking about the budget and they’re talking about its results, it’ll be talking about the complete picture, so I think that from a taxpayer point of view, you should gain some comfort on that,” said Ferguson.