Moe government needs better budget solution than 'let's hang on to what we've got'
Saskatchewan is sticking with a budget that lacks any creativity or vision
This Opinion piece was written by Sarath Peiris, who spent his career at the Moose Jaw Times Herald and Saskatoon StarPhoenix. He was the StarPhoenix's opinions editor and editorial writer.
Finance Minister Donna Harpauer's latest budget might as well have been presented in sky-writing for all the permanence it will have over the coming year, given Saskatchewan's rapidly changing circumstances and the unaddressed challenges that will need action before too long.
A lot of attention will be deservedly focused on the record $2.6-billion deficit Harpauer forecasts in the 2021-22 budget, with smaller deficits projected for another three years before returning to balance in 2026-27. By then, the total debt will have reached a breath-taking $36 billion.
While the government assures us that this massive debt is affordable because of Saskatchewan's low debt-to-GDP ratio, let's remember that this year alone we will be paying about $750 million in interest — an expense that will balloon as borrowing keeps rising, especially if interest rates go much higher than one per cent.
One can certainly sympathize with a government that has been forced to cope with massive problems brought about by the COVID pandemic. Yet it is Premier Scott Moe's economy-first, rural-focused policy approach that has contributed hugely to the spread of more virulent and deadly COVID variants that are now overwhelming medical resources and racking up huge costs.
Against the advice of medical experts, Moe is pinning all hopes on age-dictated vaccinations — not lockdowns or targeted inoculation of the now-most vulnerable groups such as youthful employees in public-facing jobs — to overcome the problem. This is bound to lead to an avoidable prolongation of the pandemic that makes Harpauer's budget projections even less reliable.
No clear strategy to reduce opioid-related deaths
Given that the government is planning to spend $17.1 billion, what's shocking is the lack of a clearly articulated and funded strategy to tackle the scourge of opioid-overdose deaths that are taking a huge toll across Saskatchewan.
Considering that as many as 375 lives were lost to opioid overdoses across Saskatchewan last year and another 75 have been recorded already in 2021, it's long past time that the government drops its ridiculous ideological opposition to properly funding groups such as Prairie Harm Reduction in Saskatoon that deliver oversight and counselling with proven life-saving results.
The money they need doesn't even amount to a rounding error in the health budget, but could save lives equivalent to the current toll of COVID. As the opioid toll mounts, the government will need a better, more compassionate strategy than simply increasing addiction beds in hospitals.
With taxpayers expected to shoulder a record debt, the Moe government needs something better than a 'Let's hang on to what we've got' approach. While governments elsewhere are rethinking their economic priorities and investing in the future, Saskatchewan is sticking with a budget that lacks any creativity or vision.
Budget lacks vision after carbon tax ruling
Yes, agriculture is important, and the battered energy sector needs help to remain afloat. Yet there's not a word in the budget about the government's response to the recent Supreme Court ruling on the validity of the carbon tax and the need to adopt meaningful carbon reduction measures.
Moe's solution of rebating the carbon tax at the pumps to motorists is counterproductive nonsense.
Once the government comes up with an actual response to the ruling, it will mean a mid-budget adjustment that throws Harpauer's numbers out of whack.
No plan to diversify spending
The government boasts it has increased K-12 education spending, yet almost every penny of it goes to cover a wage settlement with teachers, leaving little to accommodate student needs, especially of immigrant kids who need more help in classrooms. Where's the spending to foster diversity, or to help immigrants integrate?
With more than $3 billion earmarked for capital spending in 2021-22 as part of a $11.6-billion plan to foster economic recovery over the next three years, the priority remains on the male-dominated construction sector. There's little effort to offer programs to include more women in restoring economy, or to support the arts, which deliver disproportionately more jobs per dollar spent than most industries.
Of all the silly expenditures in this budget, none are more notable than the SGI and SaskPower rebates that steal former NDP premier Lorne Calvert's idea of "the lowest cost utility bundle in Canada," as well as the boutique $150 tax break to middle-class parents who enrol kids in sports or recreation classes.
It would be far better for the money to be allocated to those who need help the most — those on the economic margins for whom the Saskatchewan party has shown little empathy since taking office.
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