Living in Regina where most of the Crown corporations are headquartered, you sometimes get the impression that city people think the Crown corporations are more important to them than they are to country people.
One can somewhat see how that perception might develop in Regina that's the beneficiary of a lot of well-paying Crown corporation head office jobs. In this city, the Crowns are critical to the running of the local economy and anything that threatens those well-paying jobs becomes a big issue.
That may also be why the city seems to be where there is always been the most adamant opposition to changes to the Crown corporations - including any plan for privatization like we witnessed in the late 1980s.
But what's sometime lost on city people is both the historical and practical significance of Saskatchewan's Crown corporations to people living in the small cities, towns and rural areas of this province.
For example, it was SaskPower's 1950s rural electrification that Tommy Douglas once described as his greatest achievement as Premier - an accomplishment that arguably had a greater impact on rural people's lives than the introduction of public health care.
And lest anyone think that Crown corporations' significance is a thing of the past, think about how difficult it is to make a cell phone call in rural Saskatchewan without SaskTel's extensive network or how important the Saskatchewan Transportation Company still is to moving everything from people to machine parts around this province.
This is why everyone in Saskatchewan should be paying close attention to how well the Crown corporations are working and how the government of the day views their future. So with that in mind, let us take a quick look at the good and bad news emerging from the Crown Investment Corporation (CIC) and individual Crown annual report.
The good news is a very strong bottom line for our major Crowns in 2009. With the exception of STC's $8-million loss (about the same amount the bus company lost as in 2008) that hasn't registered a profit in three and half decades, profitability of every major Crown increased from 2008. SaskPower registered a $102.7-million profit (compared with a $63.5-million profit in 2008), SaskTel had a $129-million profit (compared with a $123.6-profit last year), SaskEnergy had a $93.3-million profit (compared with$29.2 million in 2008), SGI made a $52.4-million profit (compared with a $40.4-million last year) and SaskWater made $500,000 (compared with a million-dollar loss in 2008).
In fact, not only did all Crowns fare better than they did in 2008 when most everything in Saskatchewan was prospering at record levels but also all the Crowns (with the exception of SaskPower that ran into lower exports and sales) exceeded the profit level predicted in their business plans.
For many, this was no easy feat. All major Saskatchewan Crown corporations are wrestling with aging infrastructures, increased demand for costly technology, and - in cases like SaskTel - more aggressive competition. Many Crowns like SaskPower needed to levy substantial rate hikes.
But not withstanding our distaste for such hikes, it's important that Crowns be profitable so they can remain viable in the long-term. Unfortunately, our Saskatchewan Party government seems to be now viewing the Crowns as a short-term cash cow.
To make up for mistakes in predicting potash revenues and capital and operational over-spending on the general revenue side, the Sask. Party government is taking 100 per cent of the dividends from all the Crown corporations except SaskPower. (SaskPower's aging infrastructure and increased power demands means that it's already struggling and will see a significant rise in its debt-to-equity ratio.)This isn't a positive development for any Saskatchewan citizen who relies on the services that our Crowns deliver.
But it's especially bad news for rural Saskatchewan citizens who may be more reliant on the Crowns than anyone.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 15 years.