OPINION| Inexplicable why Sask. gov't went ahead with 'scaled down', out-of-date budget

The Saskatchewan government's plan to "dovetail" provincial measures with the federal government spending announced Wednesday to cope with the COVID-19 crisis is sensible, says Sarath Peiris. But he says it's hard to understand why the government felt the need to go ahead with a "scaled-down" version of a provincial budget that has been out of date almost since it was put to bed on Feb. 28.

Budget wasn't ready to take Saskatchewan on the bumpy road ahead, says Sarath Peiris

Donna Harpauer, Saskatchewan's finance minister, speaks during an unusual budget day at the legislature on Wednesday. Due to the financial implications of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government announced Tuesday that a full budget would be postponed to a later date. The budget announced Wednesday included spending estimates, but not revenue estimates. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

The respectful tone from Premier Scott Moe and Opposition Leader Ryan Meili on the eve of the release of provincial 2020-21 budget estimates was a welcome departure from the combative exchanges in recent days over Saskatchewan's plans to cope with the dire financial, economic and social fallouts from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without doubt it's highly challenging to make governing decisions in the midst of the unpredictability of revenue streams, and havoc wreaked on vital social programs such as health, education, income support and public safety, as well as disruptions to financial markets and the economy in general.

That makes the Moe government's decision to scale back the release of a full budget sensible, even though it's been evident for some time that the current budget should have been scrapped and time taken to develop a plan that's geared to meet the oncoming financial and social challenges.

Despite worldwide examples of governments acting decisively to deal with the crisis, Moe was musing as late as last week about proceeding with a snap spring election. He was saying as recently as Monday that a balanced budget developed in the context of pre-election spending priorities to appeal to voters would suffice.

'Dr. Doom'

Meanwhile, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer was denigrating Meili, calling him "Dr. Doom" for raising justifiable concerns about presenting a budget with out-of-date revenue projections and spending plans that didn't match evolving social and economic needs.

"We have recognized and identified for some time, as many have, that the revenues have changed, and the revenues that were coming in this budget aren't indicative of where this budget will be for the first number of months at the very least," Moe said after making the overdue decision to scale back.

The messaging in a ministerial letter and news release that accompanied the spending plan Harpauer presented Wednesday was at best an attempt to daub a fresh coat of paint on an old financial vehicle that surely wasn't ready to take Saskatchewan on the bumpy road ahead.

The budget announced Wednesday included spending estimates, but not revenue estimates. (Michael Bell/The Canadian Press)

Although Harpauer touted the spending increases in health care, education, social services and infrastructure as providing stability and much-needed spending at the start of the fiscal year, the reality is that Saskatchewan is counting on the federal government to do much of the heavy lifting ahead in the areas of economic survival and safeguarding the interests of workers, families and businesses.

Given the response of the federal government and others such as Alberta to handle the COVID-19 challenge, a huge Saskatchewan deficit this year seems inevitable.

The allocation for education is rising to $2.57 billion, up by $86 million. It includes $34.8 million in capital funds for new schools in Regina, Saskatoon and Carrot River. Not clear is how or when the government will address the $1.3 billion in deferred maintenance in existing schools.

And while an increase of $42 million for Saskatchewan's 27 school divisions, bringing the total to $1.29 billion, seems enormous, that increase amounts to just $1.5 million per division and is meant to cover everything from enrolment growth to inflation to collective bargaining. This at a time when increasing class sizes, complexity of student needs, and other issues are building pressure in a system whose teachers already are taking job action.

Spin is 'dubious'

Harpauer is increasing funding for the Saskatchewan Health Authority to $3.74 billion, up by $140.6 million. But the news release's spin on it is dubious when it says: "This funds the doctors, nurses and other health care professionals who are today on the front lines in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, while meeting the health needs of Saskatchewan residents."

In other words, there's no extra money targeted for coping with the pandemic, even though that's undoubtedly the biggest challenge front-line staff will face for weeks and months to come. The $140 million was allocated to meet the growing needs in the health sector long before COVID-19 hit Saskatchewan.

Whether it's for additional hospital beds, equipment or testing, or staffing issues involving front-line workers, or even protecting the jobs of workers affected by the pandemic, Moe and the government are planning to "dovetail" provincial measures with the $27-billion in spending the federal government announced Wednesday to cope with the crisis.

Fair enough, and sensible.

Inexplicable, however, is why the government felt the need to go ahead Wednesday with this "scaled down" version of half a provincial budget that has been out of date almost since it was put to bed on Feb. 28.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

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About the Author

Sarath Peiris was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in 1955 and spent his career at the Moose Jaw Times Herald and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He was the StarPhoenix’s opinions editor and editorial writer.

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