Swift reaction to Saskatchewan budget

Swift reaction to Saskatchewan budget

Daily Bone Update – Saskatchewan government under scrutiny for decision to pay down debt instead of spending more on priority areas.

REGINA – Reaction was swift Wednesday after Finance Minister Donna Harpauer presented Saskatchewan’s 2023-24 budget.

The focus of interest groups at the legislature quickly turned to the $1 billion surplus, and the decision by the province to retire $1 billion in operational debt in the provincial budget.

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Premier Scott Moe defended the decision to address the debt.

“What we decided with increased interest rates, it was in the best interest of Saskatchewan people to pay off this operational debt and to ensure that we are not paying that increased interest rate years into the future. This will save us tens of millions of dollars this year and years to come. These are dollars that we can ultimately reinvest in the very programs that we did change, for example in this budget.”

But the decision to pay down debt, instead of using that extra $1 billion on more spending priorities, drew mixed reactions.

Business advocates at the Legislature on Wednesday pushed for the government to get its fiscal house in order and pay down the debt, but saw a missed opportunity to cut the expanded PST or address affordability issues. While there was some targeted relief for some individuals, it fell well short of the $500 checks announced last August that were handed out to Saskatchewan residents over the age of 18.

It was the affordability issue that the opposition hammered at the government on Thursday morning, especially during the first post-budget question period, as recorded in Hansard.

“During a cost of living crisis, when 55 per cent of Saskatchewan people feel worse off this year than last year, how can that tired and out of touch premier fail to provide any relief at all to Saskatchewan families struggling to make ends meet?” said opposition leader Carla Beck.

“There is a tired and disagreeable party in this Assembly; I’m just not sure they’re on the government’s side, Mr. Speaker,” was Moe’s response.

Financial critic Trent Wotherspoon asked “how out of touch has a government got to ignore small businesses and refuse to provide any relief from the rate hikes for households and local businesses who already face so many challenges and costs added by that government in face?”

“It’s the sound of irresponsibility that will keep them on that side of the House for a long time,” replied Crown and Central Services Minister Don Morgan.

While affordability was one concern, spending increases were another. There were generally increases seen in the budget to health care, education, social services and other areas. But on Budget Day, labor, health care and education advocates raised common complaints that those increases fell far short of what was needed.

“This budget provides a small increase on the operating side for education,” Jamie Smith-Windsor of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association said Wednesday. “It does not meet what boards needed or expected in terms of the inflationary costs they are experiencing. It doesn’t meet the expectations for enrollment growth in school divisions, and it doesn’t meet what boards need in operating funds to deliver the kinds of programs and services we need to be focused on.”

When the Minister of Education, Dustin Duncan was asked about these concerns of SSBA on Wednesday, he said that the funding is “not nothing. We are talking about $2 billion to educate 190,000 students in this province.”

Duncan did point to a 2.5 percent increase that equates to $49.4 million going to school operating budgets.

“Again, what we’re trying to do is address the pressures that we know divisions are going to have,” Duncan said, pointing in particular to enrollment growth and non-salary inflationary pressures.

Duncan was also asked about the response from Saskatchewan Teachers Federation that the money for education is not enough to address classroom cuts. In particular, he was asked about STF’s calls for an increase of $400 million more to education to meet the needs.

Duncan noted that they moved away from that number in the days leading up to the budget. “So I know they kind of changed where their number was, but they never formally presented us with a $400 million request.”

Organized labor had a variety of concerns about the budget. Judy Henley, president of CUPE Saskatchewan, believed the increases would not be enough for workers to keep up with the cost of living.

“Absolutely not,” said Henley. “Especially in health care, many of the workers are not full-time. Many of the jobs are part time, in relief. There is no guarantee of full-time hours. So that’s one of the reasons why people don’t stay in health care, because there’s no incentive to stay in health care. They need to create more full-time jobs.”

She added there is “absolutely no investment, really, in the public services. Education has been struggling for years.”

Henley said that even with “record-breaking” education funding, “we’ve still had teacher layoffs, provider layoffs, cut hours and reduced cleaning.”

Healthcare unions in particular have raised alarm bells about the funding going to that sector. Tracy Zambory of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses issued a statement on the union’s website denouncing the budget.

“I am writing to all of you today to express my deepest disappointment with the provincial budget,” Zambory said. “This budget contains nothing new that recognizes the dedication of registered nurses, nor the state of the overwhelmed, overburdened and collapsed health care system. Nothing. This budget does nothing to acknowledge the seriousness of the registered nurse shortage and the threat it poses to patient safety.”

Sarah Nickel, a fourth-year nursing student and co-president of the Health Sciences Student Association, expressed further concern Wednesday that many people continue to be excluded from the health care recruitment incentives.

“If you look at the fine print, it’s almost propaganda because they’re almost saying they’re doing these incentives, but realistically on the ground that’s not what’s happening.”

Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Health Minister Paul Merriman insisted the budget would “support our human resources.”

“This is a budget to invest back into the health care system, not only in capital, but also in operation; our surgical waiting list, where we look at over 100,000 operations for our province,” he said. Merriman also pointed to physician assistants, as well as “significant investment in Mental Health and Addictions.”

When asked about the response from the SUN union the following day, Thursday, Merriman pointed out that he had heard from frontline workers about the need to bring in more workers.

“Again, 250 jobs are very important that we brought in last year. 400 Filipino nurses coming in, that’s significant.”

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