Sask. government failed to save for rainy day, some urge to start now

The boom is over, but some say the Saskatchewan government should begin planning now for the day resource prices rise again.

Sovereign wealth funds save billions in some jurisdictions

Thousands of people work in the oil and gas sector, including these oil rig workers.
Saskatchewan could have saved as much as $6 billion during the resource boom but did not, according to some estimates. The boom is over, and some say a sovereign wealth fund law is needed now before prices rise. (Larry MacDougal/The Canadian Press)

Dozens of countries, states and provinces have put away money during good times to cover the bad — but Saskatchewan didn't.

Norway socked away more than $800 billion during the resource boom.

Other countries, from Kuwait to Kazakhstan, Trinidad to East Timor, placed a portion of their windfalls in "sovereign wealth funds."

Even tiny U.S. states, such as New Mexico, Wyoming and North Dakota, set aside billions for a rainy day.

We've blown it.- Eric Howe, University of Saskatchewan

Michael Maduell, president of the Seattle-based Sovereign Wealth Fund Institute, said sovereign wealth funds are becoming more popular globally, with total holdings of more than $7 trillion. He said the issue crosses the political spectrum.

"If politicians see a big pile of cash, they'll want to spend it," Maduell said. "This is a way to save."

But Saskatchewan, with its vast reserves of oil, gas, potash, coal and uranium, saved a total of $0.

The rainy day is here. The boom is over. This year's projected deficit sits at $1.2 billion, and overall debt will climb to $14.8 billion.

"We've blown it," said University of Saskatchewan economist Eric Howe.

Howe said the failure to save, accompanied by a steep rise in spending, was shockingly naive. Howe and others compare Premier Brad Wall's government to that of Premier Grant Devine's in the 1980s.

"Their philosophy of spending was, 'Hey, if things are good today, they're going to be really, really good tomorrow and even better than that the day after that,'" Howe said.

"Now you and I know both know the world doesn't work like that."

A Saskatchewan government official said they thought the boom would continue.

"Despite our more diversified economy, we had an over-reliance on resource revenues to fund government services based on an expectation that commodity prices and resource revenues would remain high," the official said in an email to CBC News.

"No one expected resource revenues to fall below the low end [of government estimates] — to fall over a billion dollars — and stay there. And they have remained that low for three years now."

Spending soared during boom time

When the good times began, many others in Saskatchewan thought they would last forever.

In 2007, resource prices soared. In 2008, oil and gas sales reached nearly $10 billion. Profits at PotashCorp alone reached $3.5 billion.

Million-dollar house speculation became common. Widescreen televisions, ATVs, snowmobiles and Jet Skis flew off sales floors.

We have to spend less money.It's not fun, but it's not going to get any easierif we continue to run deficits.- Todd MacKay, Canadian Taxpayers Federation

Billions flowed into Saskatchewan government coffers, but some wondered whether residents were getting full value for these non-renewable resources.

Calls to review royalty rates were dismissed.

Some, such as then-Saskatchewan Liberal Party leader Ryan Bater, pleaded for creation of a sovereign wealth fund. He cited Norway as he warned Saskatchewan was "becoming dependent on natural resources." He said there would be trouble when the boom ended.

Instead of creating a fund, spending ramped up.

Government floated $180 million in loans and grants to build a new football stadium for the Saskatchewan Roughriders, gave nurses a 36 per cent raise, and bought $21 million worth of land for Regina's Global Transportation Hub "not in a financially responsible manner," according to the provincial auditor.

Billions in tax breaks were given to resource, construction, agriculture and other industries.

Construction began on controversial projects, including the $235-million children's hospital in Saskatoon, the $1.5-billion carbon capture plant near Estevan, and the $2-billion bypass around Regina.

A government official pointed to the new schools, repaired roads and shortened surgical wait lists of recent years. Those with disabilities or living in seniors' homes enjoy more supports. More than 100,000 low-income residents have been removed from the tax roll. Overall taxes have been cut by $6.6 billion.

"These are just some of the worthwhile investments undertaken for the benefit of all Saskatchewan people," the official wrote in an email.

'We have to spend less money'

Today, resource prices have plummeted to less than one-third of peak value. Full-time, well-paying jobs are diminishing. Residential and commercial vacancies are climbing.

Canadian Taxpayers Federation prairie director Todd MacKay said there is always an endless list of legitimate needs. That doesn't mean two basic principles of economics can be ignored: Save during the good times and live within your means.

"We have to spend less money," said MacKay.

"It's not fun, but it's not going to get any easier if we continue to run deficits. We've tried that before. We know what happens. It's not good."

Many are cringing in anticipation of a tight provincial budget, due to be released Wednesday.

Some say the boom was squandered, but now's the time to prepare for the next one.

Pass a new law now, they say. Create a sovereign wealth fund. Then, when the next boom comes, politicians won't be tempted to spend the windfall.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation released a report this month estimating a Saskatchewan fund could have reached $6 billion by now if it was established at the start of the boom.

MacKay went so far as to say the government should be more "patient" on tax cuts in order to establish the fund.

"We've got to get better at handling non-renewable resources. It takes discipline," he said.

"You don't want to do that stuff on the fly. You've got to have those plans in place."

The provincial government commissioned former University of Saskatchewan president Peter MacKinnon to research the issue. In his final report, MacKinnon suggested creating a "Futures Fund."

Peter MacKinnon, left, and Premier Brad Wall discuss MacKinnon's report on a sovereign wealth fund for Saskatchewan. (Stefani Langenegger/CBC )

MacKinnon, when contacted at his new home in Canmore, Alta., said a wealth fund "remains a very good idea."

He noted Saskatchewan created a wealth fund in 1978 with an initial deposit of $465 million. With few formal controls on spending, it was drained in the 1980s and abolished in 1992.

MacKinnon said the key is an independent board to protect the fund's principal investment amount.

In other jurisdictions, interest from the fund finances social programs and other government projects.

Premier likes fund idea

Wall has said a sovereign wealth fund is a good idea, but it's unclear whether any legislation is planned.

In any case, Wall has said several major hurdles would have to be jumped before any fund is considered.

Once oil prices reach $75 US per barrel — the current price is about $50 US — government would place money in a "rainy day fund." That fund would not be independent, nor would the principal be protected.

Once that hits $500 million, any extra cash would be dedicated to debt repayment.

Once all that is done, a sovereign wealth fund will be considered.

In advance of the March 22 provincial budget, the CBC is examining how people in Saskatchewan are impacted, and possible solutions to the projected deficit.


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.