Provincial Budget 2016: the good times end

Province by Gregory Beatty and Evan Radford

Darrol Hofmeister

On Wednesday June 2 Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party government brought down its ninth budget — and its first in the fun-filled new global era of permanently depressed oil prices. Even the Great Potash Shock of 2013 — where low prices met over-enthusiastic government estimates — doesn’t touch the near-$1 billion resource revenue shortfall.

We got Greg Beatty and Evan Radford to report on five priority budget areas, because that’s the kind of thing they like to do.

1. Infrastructure And Environment

Big surprise: to cover the Saskatchewan Party government’s $434 million deficit, it’s repealing the Growth And Financial Security Act that outlaws the running of consecutive provincial deficits.

No criticism from us there — Balanced budget laws that right-wingers push to rein in government spending are dumb as hell. When times are tough, governments need flexibility to act.

Same can be said for the $1.7 billion the Wall government is borrowing over two years to fund provincial infrastructure. Our current debt to GDP ratio is relatively low, as are interest rates, so why not borrow to invest in Saskatchewan’s future?

But with the government focussed on transportation and energy infrastructure such as bypasses, commuter bridges, twinned highways and electrical grid expansion, you have to ask if Saskatchewan’s future truly is being served.

Peter Prebble of the Saskatchewan Environmental Society has his doubts.

“Sometimes new interchanges are inevitable when you have growing cities,” says Prebble. “But what’s lacking in the provincial government’s plan is a real attempt to balance growth with the need for cities to become more environmentally sustainable. One signal in the budget is the absence of financial support for things like bicycle paths and urban transit in Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Albert and Moose Jaw.”

Over the last decade, greenhouse gas emissions from transportation have jumped from 15 to 21 per cent of Saskatchewan’s total. That includes both personal vehicle use and commercial transport, so it’s a serious challenge.

To reduce GHG emissions from commercial transport, Prebble says, we need to move toward rail.

“That will be a difficult transition because we’re so reliant on trucking,” Prebble says. “The federal government needs to step up and work with the provinces and big cities in planning for more rail for moving goods, because it produces five times less carbon emissions compared to moving things by truck.”

We also need to rethink our approach to the global economy, he says.

“We have to be more conscious about the increased need for self-sufficiency,” says Prebble. “In food production, for instance, we export large amounts but produce very little of our own, and there’s lots of carbon emissions associated with food export and import. So for us to produce more of our food locally makes sense.”

Right now, the environmental cost of moving resources, commodities and manufactured and processed goods around the world isn’t being factored into the economic equation. A carbon price would help do that, and force governments and transnational corporations to adopt sustainable business practices.

Prebble welcomes the Saskatchewan government’s investment in renewable energy through wind and solar power, but says more needs to be done.

“What they’re not doing is showing any sign they’re going to phase out our fossil fuel infrastructure. Their 2030 plan will result in fewer emissions from coal and more from natural gas, but the total amount of energy generated from fossil fuels will remain the same.”

The Wall government may not be paying a political price for its “head-in-the-sand” approach to climate change now, but Prebble predicts it one day will.

“As the consequences of climate change become clearer in Saskatchewan, the realization of people that we have to make the transition will also become clearer. Then people will really regret that their government didn’t provide more leadership.” /Gregory Beatty

2. First Nations, Métis and Northern Affairs


That’s the word of the day. And when it comes to how this government interacts with and delivers programs to Saskatchewan’s First Nation and Métis peoples, they’re some cold, cruel cuts indeed.

Consider the following data.

The Buffalo Narrows Correctional Centre will be closed to the tune of $661,000 in savings from now until next April and $1 million each fiscal year thereafter, according to this year’s budget. According to the NDP’s First Nations and Métis critic Buckley Belanger, whose northwestern riding covers the same area, Buffalo Narrows employs approximately 20 people, including part-timers.

The centre is also surrounded by four First Nations: Birch Narrows, Buffalo River Dene, Clearwater River Dene and English River. Good luck to the people of those reserves who were looking for work in the area.

Or, you know, those who wanted to visit someone they knew at the centre: its 18 inmates will now be moved to Prince Albert, 407 kilometers south.

“Form the northern perspective and even from the aboriginal perspective, when they had a lot of money, the Saskatchewan Party, they were flushed with cash, they ignored most of those groups,” Belanger said on budget day last week. “Now it’s time for cuts. Guess where they go: to the social programs, the aboriginal groups, and certain areas that don’t support them, like the north.”

Speaking of Saskatchewan’s indigenous people and the justice system, the government is slashing $1.8 million from the Aboriginal Courtworker program and aboriginal police consulting groups.

According to the Ministry of Justice website, the court worker program “provides important services that assist Aboriginal adults and youth in conflict with the law.”

“Courtworkers help to ensure that Aboriginal people who are alleged to have committed a criminal offence receive fair and just treatment before the courts,” it continues.

Funding for those programs is now set at $4 million per year.

Warren McCall, whose Regina riding covers a large area of North Central, says one of the most alarming issues for off-reserve aboriginal people is their rate of unemployment. He cites that number as being at 24.7 per cent.

“Out of inner-city Regina, in my home neighbourhood, people are more concerned about gangs now than they have been in a long time. They see the resurgence. And again, if you’ve got a justice system that isn’t in fact working on reoffending, that is so over-crowded that the restorative or rehabilitative aspects of the system are just overwhelmed by the sheer numbers, that’s not being smart on crime, that’s being stupid on crime,” McCall said.

There are also cuts from the Ministry of the Environment that will affect First Nations lands.

The line item titled Aboriginal Affairs falls under the Landscape Stewardship program. It’s been cut by $189,000, now sitting at $573,000 per year.

One funding increase is for the line item First Nations Gaming Agreements, which falls under First Nations and Métis Engagement in Government Relations.

That increase is for $4.829 million.

But line items in the same section for First Nations and Métis Relations, Treaty Land Entitlement and the Métis Development Fund have all been cut by at least $23,000. Treaty Land Entitlement has been cut by $100,000.

The Municipal and Northern Engagement program, which falls under the same ministry, gets a funding increase of $33.248 million. Neither its description or its line items explicitly specify funding for First Nations or Métis peoples. /Evan Radford

3. The Old College Cry

The Saskatchewan government recently unveiled the refurbished copper dome atop the Legislature. The “Leg’” opened in 1912, so it’s been around a long time. It’s not as old as the University of Regina, though, which has been around in one form or another since 1911. And the University of Saskatchewan was founded even earlier — in 1907.

Originally affiliated with the U of S as the Regina campus, the U of R became a full-fledged university in 1974.

During Finance Minister Kevin Doherty’s budget press conference, however, doubt was cast on the future independence of both institutions as part of the Wall government’s ominous “transformational change” rhetoric.

“In a province of a million people do we need two faculties of engineering, two faculties of nursing, two faculties of education?” Doherty asked. “I don’t know the answer. I’m not sitting here today saying that’s what needs to be rationalized, but we ought to have those discussions.”

The two universities have long been accustomed to subpar budget allocations, so the government’s decision to freeze operating grants in 2016-17 came as no surprise, says U of R Faculty Association chair Dennis Fitzpatrick.

“The government is trying to be as tight-fisted as they can, and they seem to have the idea that there’s significant slack that can be taken advantage of,” says Fitzpatrick. “But when you look at the two universities, there’s an incredible amount of deferred maintenance.”

As for Doherty’s musings about possible faculty consolidation, Fitzpatrick is skeptical.

“I think it’s time for a reality check. The Faculties of Engineering at both universities are filled to bursting. And they don’t exist in isolation. Many courses that engineering students take are taught outside the faculty, such as the Faculty of Science for math, physics and chemistry.

“And the Faculty of Science is full. It’s full of science students, plus students from other faculties who are taking science courses. So if you’re going to move engineering, for instance, to the University of Saskatchewan, how much of the Faculty of Science are you going to move? Engineering students take English courses. How many English professors are you going to move?”

Nursing was another faculty Doherty singled out. The irony there is especially rich, says Fitzpatrick.

“This government was intimately involved in creating the second nursing program. Why? Because the only nursing program in Saskatchewan couldn’t handle the number of nurses who were going to be required to serve the people of Saskatchewan.

“Realistically, what’s the solution? Double the size of the University of Saskatchewan program and move everyone up there? It just doesn’t make sense.”

Halifax, with a metro population of 390,000, has seven post-secondary institutions. Yet the Wall government has doubts about Saskatchewan’s ability to support two? Benefits extend far beyond the nuts and bolts of education too. In Regina and Saskatoon, and throughout the province really, the two universities are integral to the social and cultural fabric.

Bottom line, though, is that we live in a world where creativity and knowledge are valuable assets. And synergies between the different faculties help students optimize their education, says Fitzpatrick.

“Most people go off to university at 17 or 18 and they don’t know what they want to do,” says Fitzpatrick. “They know they want to do something, but to find out what, they need to be exposed to things.

“A student might start out in science, and find they’re really interested in the application of science, so they move to engineering. Those opportunities don’t often occur if you have to uproot yourself. So if you’re thinking about serving the people of Saskatchewan you have to make all these things available in the province.” /Gregory Beatty

4. School Blues

On the education front, the government is putting the onus on school boards to find savings and — excuse the business-speak — efficiencies to try ringing more out of a modest funding increase.

“We look to the divisions to come up with as many good solutions as they can, to save money and to ensure that we deliver effective education for our students. So that discussion point is still there,” said Minister Don Morgan on budget day.

The K-12 education program in the budget received an overall funding increase of $143.493 million. It’s not enough.

“We know that if we had more money, our education partners would use it wisely. We have faith in them. But it has been a challenging year. So we’re asking those people to look at and find some efficiencies within this year, and I believe that they will be able to,” Morgan said.

“We have increased in the preventative maintenance and repair budget from 25 to over 32 million because we know that we’ve got 750 schools in our province,” he added. “A lot of them are over 50, 80 [years old],” he said. “And some of them are over 100.

“There was a slight year-over-year [funding] increase in this budget, but the amount was miniscule and doesn’t even touch the rates of inflation when you look at the operating funds,” said NDP education critic Carla Beck.

She points out that school boards were barely getting by before this year’s budget dropped, mentioning Regina’s Board of Education — where she was a trustee before entering provincial politics.

“Last year, Regina Public really made an effort to shoulder the shortfall in funding from the provincial government,” says Beck. “And to try to keep those cuts away from the front line, they did things like cut the universal lunch program, put under review the distance for busing, decreased the number of consultants by nine, I believe it was, eliminated a superintendent position.

“All in an attempt to mitigate what is in effect a cut when you don’t have funds to cover the fixed cost within your system,” she said.  /Evan Radford

5. Parks Get Wrecked?

One of the biggest news items during budget day was the elimination of provincial funding for five city parks: Moose Jaw’s Wakamow, Chinook Parkway in Swift Current, Pehonan in Prince Albert, River Valley in Battlefords and Weyburn’s Tatagwa park.

The total amount eliminated: $540,000.

Nancy Styles, the president of the Saskatchewan Urban Parks and Conservation Agencies and a Weyburn city councillor put the cuts in perspective. Before this year’s budget, the city would receive between $42,000 and $43,000 of provincial funding each year. That represented 50 per cent of the park’s overall funding. Twenty-five per cent of that goes to yearly maintenance.

Adding further context, Styles explained that the city needed $70,000 to repave 10-blocks’ worth of the park’s pathways. It took four years for the city to save that money.

“We certainly won’t be doing it this year,” she said.

Funding for Regina’s and Saskatoon’s parks has neither been cut nor increased: Regina’s Wascana Centre Authority will have its statutory funding remain at $782,000, while a second line item for the authority is marked for $2.836 million.

Saskatoon’s Meewasin Valley Authority, meanwhile, has unchanged statutory funding sitting at $740,000.

Despite the unchanged amounts, Styles said she’s concerned for both of them.

“Wascana is barely pulling through financially as it, because they’ve had no increases, and a lot of what they do is they have to pay people,” said Styles. “They have contracts and those contracts are negotiated, and usually they go up a bit each year. They’ve had to cut back a little bit the last two years in many little things to cover their budget.”

Meewasin is worse off. Styles said the park had to dip deep into money raised through funding drives to cover wages last year.

“They had $700,000 in that fund, and last year they took out $500,000 to cover wages. So with $200,000 left, they could be looking at layoffs right now, just before the summer season,” she said.

The way that might play out is through closing interpretive centres, being unable take care of certain park buildings or being unable to to cover heat and electricity costs to specific buildings, Styles said.

Here’s one final bit of context: remember those controversial land deals between private businessmen and the government-controlled Global Transportation Hub Authority west of Regina?

The GTH bought 204 acres of that privately-owned land, priced at $103,000 per acre in March 2014, according to CBC.

That’s a $21.012 million expenditure for the government. /Evan Radford