Saskatchewan

'Everything's on the table': Sask. finance minister looking to future budgets

After tabling a deficit budget for 2016-2017, Saskatchewan's premier and finance minister have promised a sweeping review of government spending and taxation — to be done within 10 months — to get the province's books balanced.

Saskatchewan examining revenues and expenses

Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty delivered his first budget on Wednesday. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

After tabling a deficit budget for 2016-2017, Saskatchewan's premier and finance minister have promised a sweeping review of government spending and taxation — to be done within 10 months — to get the province's books balanced.

Finance Minister Kevin Doherty is projecting a $434-million deficit for this year, largely because revenue from non-renewable resources such as oil, natural gas and potash has plunged nearly $1 billion.

We're going to embark on significant changes.- Premier Brad Wall

"We are faced with a fragile world economy ... coupled with sharp declines in oil and potash prices," he said Wednesday. "This poses considerable challenges to our province's economy, its finances and its people."

Doherty said if lower commodity prices are the "new normal," then the government needs to look at core services it has to deliver in the years ahead.

"The short answer is that everything's on the table — and I know that sounds cliche — but I literally mean that on both the revenue side and the expenditure side," he said.

Wall said he does not like running a deficit and wants that turned around by next year.

"It is just 10 months," Wall said, noting the time left in this fiscal year and the start of the 2017-2018 budget. "Next year we're forecasting zero per cent increase in expenditures. So, this year it was a small two per cent increase and it presented challenges. Next year we're talking about less than that."

Wall also spoke about the consultation process that would lead to changes.

"I'm already tired of the term 'transformational change' but if we're going to embark on significant changes I don't think we should do that unilaterally," Wall said.

One of the areas that will be examined is health care. A special commissioner is to be appointed to recommend options for fewer health regions, there are currently 12, and more efficient delivery of services.

Premier Brad Wall speaks to media on budget day at the Legislative Building in Regina. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Wall wondered if Saskatchewan needs 12 regions.

"We haven't set the number yet," he said. "I think the most important part is deciding on the number, together with those in the health care sector, and maybe the number is zero. We have a ministry, we already have a very large ministry of health."

In reacting to that initiative, the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses said it is open to changes that promote a vibrant health system that focuses on patient safety.

SUN says it wants a health care system that is vibrant and focuses on patient safety.

"Let's look at the opportunities there, but let's also make sure that we're paying attention to what didn't work," Tracy Zambory, president of the SUN, said. "We don't have to do repeats. So that when we do something we do it right, we do it good, we don't always do it with budget in mind."

Questions posed about post-secondary education

Finance Minister Doherty also identified Saskatchewan's post-secondary education system as an area to examine.

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

Doherty noted the University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, is currently sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve funds.

"What's the purposes of those funds? What are they going to do with those funds? Why are you raising tuition fees when you're sitting on those kinds of dollars at the University of Saskatchewan?" Doherty said.

A vice-president from the U of S, Greg Fowler, said monies held in reserve funds often have specific requirements for how they are spent.

After hearing some of the questions being posed by the government, the NDP opposition's Cathy Sproule said she was not impressed.

"This is a government that's been in power for nine years and they're now saying, 'Is this something we should be doing?'" she noted.

Sproule criticized the government approach. She said the government spent all of its money when times were good and is now increasing its debt and asking others to help it deal with tough financial times.

With files from CBC's Stefani Langenegger and The Canadian Press

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