That’s the tag-line the Sask. Party government has chosen to describe this year’s budget which, fueled by strong resource revenue and the overall strength of the provincial economy, will see a variety of measures implemented to lower taxes, improve services and decrease debt.
Before we get to the numbers, I’d like to comment on the tagline. It echoes, of course, the boastful slogan that our neighbours to the west dreamed up 15 or so years ago to promote their status as an economic powerhouse. Under former premier Ed Stelmach, Alberta ditched “the Alberta Advantage” as a calling card in 2009 in favour of “Freedom to Create … Spirit to Achieve.” Now, Saskatchewan government officials have decided to resurrect the slogan to tout our own province’s status as an economic powerhouse.
For several decades now, a sizeable segment of Saskatchewan people have suffered from “Alberta envy”. This has led them to either relocate to the land of milk and honey (or, at least, oil and other carbon-based fuels) once they graduated high school/university; or to gnash their teeth when family and friends who made the move returned home to visit and crowed about how prosperous they were and how pathetic Saskatchewan was in comparison to the Kingdom of Plenty on our western border.
Not being overly tuned in to consumer culture, “the Alberta Advantage” never really resonated with me. But as far as the provincial psyche goes, it obviously looms large. The budget address Finance Minister Ken Krawetz (pictured above) delivered in the Legislature today is further proof of that. The thing is, we’re 30 years late to the party. This isn’t the 1980s. The blueprint that Alberta followed to build its economy led them to make many mistakes. Mistakes that, if we had the courage of our own convictions, we could learn from and avoid.
As well, the political, economic and socio-cultural climate is considerably different today than it was 30 years ago. With the economic momentum we enjoy today, we have a golden opportunity to lay the groundwork for a truly prosperous and sustainable future. From the time of its formation in the late ’90s, though, the Sask. Party has demonstrated an unhealthy preoccupation with currying favour in the Alberta oil patch and being generally enthralled with all things Alberta. Hopefully they won’t sell Saskatchewan, and the unique culture we’ve been able to develop here through times both good and bad, short.
More budget coverage will follow on-line and in our April 7 print edition, but here’s a few numbers that stand out:
Revenues in 2011-12 are forecast at $10.79 billion. That compares with estimated revenues of $9.95 billion in 2010-11 (which the government recently updated in its third-quarter financial statement to $10.99 billion). Expenditures, meanwhile, are estimated to be $10.68 billion, which compares to the 2010-11 estimate of $10.12 billion (updated in March to $10.95 billion). That leaves Saskatchewan with a projected surplus of $115 million in 2011-12, compared to an estimated deficit of $174.2 million in the 2010-11 budget (later updated to a $40 million surplus).
In making its revenue projections, the Finance Department is assuming an oil price of US$93 a barrel (it currently sits at $105.86 a barrel), a potash price of US$390 a tonne (it’s in that neighbourhood now) and a continuing low price for natural gas of C$3.50 a gigajoule. What that boils down to is a projected 4.2 per cent increase in GDP, compared to 2.4 per cent in the rest of Canada.
On the tax side, the basic personal exemption and spousal exemption are rising by $1000 to $14,535, while the exemption for dependent children is going up by $500 to $5,514. At the same time, education property taxes are being reduced by $55.6 million ($31.4 million of that applies to farmland, while $18.7 million goes to residential property owners). As well, the small business tax rate is being reduced from 4.5 to 2 per cent beginning July 1.
Under revenue sharing, municipalities are set to receive $216.8 million which translates into one percentage point of the PST. For Regina, that will result in a boost in funding to $33.5 million from $25.9 million in 2010-11. Saskatoon’s share, meanwhile, goes from $29.2 million to $37.8 million.
In the black hole of Health, spending will rise 6.2 per cent to $4.46 billion. Included is $5 million to establish a new emergency helicopter ambulance service. Education rises 9.1 per cent to $1.43 billion, with $2 million for English language instruction for immigrants, $2.9 million to improve the academic performance of First Nations and Metis students, and $6.1 million to establish 1000 new licensed child care spaces. Advanced Education, Employment & Immigration rises 3.2 per cent to $855.9 million. That should limit potential tuition increases, says the government, to 3 per cent.
In Social Services, spending will rise 8 per cent to $814.2 million. That includes $15.3 million to implement recommendations from the Child Welfare Review conducted by Bob Pringle in 2010 to improve conditions for children in foster care. $13.6 million in additional funds will go to social assistance payments and shelter allowances. In February, the province directed $34 million toward affordable housing. In the budget, a further $33.9 million is being allocated to social housing projects. Mention is also made of $1.7 million going to a Rental Incentive Program and Municipal Affordable Homeownership Program to ease the housing crunch. Given the seriousness of the housing situation in Saskatchewan (in a story in our March 24 issue, a homelessness researcher predicts that we’ll see tent cities in Regina this summer) that’s a drop in the bucket, and will likely draw considerable criticism. Although the government does promise to announce details shortly on a Headstart On a Home program that, it says, will stimulate construction of at least 1000 entry level homes in the next five years.
Other figures that leap out, and that are tied inextricably to the growing economic pressure that many Saskatchewan citizens are facing, include an 8.5 per cent increase in spending for police services to $167.2 million; $13.8 million for a new Court of Queen’s Bench in Saskatoon; and $7 million to begin construction on 32 new units at Pine Grove Correctional Centre which houses female inmates at Prince Albert.