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SaskTel future, SaskPower rate increases dominate Leg

Leg Watch
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The second week of the legislative session saw MLAs continue to speak in response to the Speech from the Throne delivered a week earlier.

But there were also a couple of hot issues that flared up both inside and outside the legislature, and they both involved provincial Crown corporations.

One of them involved the risk assessment for SaskTel. That review was prompted by recent news that Bell is proposing to purchase Manitoba Telecom Services (MTS), a move that leaves SaskTel as the only provincially-owned telecom company left in Canada.

The NDP Opposition smelled possible privatization, however, and Opposition leader Trent Wotherspoon had questions for Premier Brad Wall on the issue during Question Period on Tuesday. That exchange was captured in Hansard: 

Mr. Wotherspoon: —Mr. Speaker, we just had an election where the Premier hid the true state of our finances and his budget, and over and over again, he promised he wouldn’t privatize our Crowns. Well the truth is leaking out. The deficits are much, much bigger than pretended by the Premier and he’s now reviewing, doing a supposed review of SaskTel. Everyone knows, as one commentator put it, that the biggest risk to SaskTel is a cash-strapped, third-term Sask Party government. And the Premier has already put privatization on the table of this company that belongs to all Saskatchewan people.

Mr. Speaker, this is the party and the Premier that is hiding the finances, that’s hiding the budget, that’s hiding the information with his GTH [Global Transportation Hub] land scandal. Does he really not understand why Saskatchewan people are just a little skeptical about how open and fair and honest his supposed assessment of SaskTel will be?

The Speaker: —I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Wall: —Thank you very much, Mr. Speaker. I thank the Leader of the Opposition for his question. I think it’s very important in the wake of the recent takeover of MTS [Manitoba Telecom Services], the proposal to take it over by Bell, that we ask the Crown corporation, SaskTel, to look at any risk that might exist to the Crown as a result of it now being the only small and regional Crown telephone company, frankly, in the country.

I think that risk analysis may highlight a number of things. It may highlight there is no particular new risks to identify, that SaskTel can continue to operate as it has, providing good service to the people of this province and being the asset that it is for all of the people of Saskatchewan.

There may be other elements that are identified in this analysis that we can react to to strengthen SaskTel. I think the bottom line is that Saskatchewan people will want to ensure that the jobs that are here because of SaskTel stay; that revenue to the province remains, Mr. Speaker; that this company, which has been invaluable in the life of the province, is protected from whatever risks that may exist with now it being the only, the only regional telco in the country, the only small one…

Mr. Wotherspoon:— Mr. Speaker, everyone knows that the biggest risk to SaskTel and our Crowns is that cash-strapped government, Mr. Speaker. Everyone knows that. And now he’s talking just weeks after an election about a costly referendum. You know, if he wanted a mandate to privatize, he should have been honest to Saskatchewan people during the election. The fact is the Premier solemnly swore he would not privatize SaskTel. Now, just weeks later, he says privatization is on the table.

… Mr. Speaker, I ask again why wasn’t the Premier straight with Saskatchewan people about his plans on this front during the election?

The Speaker:— I recognize the Premier.

Hon. Mr. Wall:— Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I was asked during the election campaign if our government would change the Crown protection Act, which obviously governs what governments can or can’t do with any of the Crowns, beyond what we’d campaigned on with respect to SLGA [Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority]. I said that we wouldn’t and we would keep that promise. That’s what we have done for the last eight years, Mr. Speaker, is worked hard to keep the promises that we’ve made.

What happened post the election was the takeover in our neighbouring province, the province of Manitoba, of the only other small regional telephone company, Manitoba telephones, by Bell. Mr. Speaker, that obviously will impact on SaskTel here. We don’t know the degree to which it will impact on SaskTel.

I think it’s completely reasonable that the board and the executives would hire some experts in the industry to provide a risk analysis and then report transparently back to the shareholders of SaskTel, Mr. Speaker, the people of Saskatchewan. Mr. Speaker, there will never be a change in the ownership structure of SaskTel without a mandate from the people of this province so long as we have the opportunity to serve in government, and I’m sure that would be the case for members opposite.

The other major news item involved the recent announcement by SaskPower of rate increases. 

Once again, NDP Opposition critic Cathy Sproule had questions for Minister of the Economy Bill Boyd on that issue Tuesday.

The Speaker: — I recognize the member from Saskatoon Nutana.

Ms. Sproule:— Mr. Speaker, it’s really hard to understand why they’re so chipper over there. I sure don’t remember them campaigning on raising SaskPower rates either. Mr. Speaker, for years this government and this Premier have mismanaged and bungled project after project, and the people of Saskatchewan have been stuck with the bill.

We haven’t seen a budget from this government. We saw nothing in the Throne Speech by way of a vision for the future of this province. But on Friday we did see more costs being thrown on the backs of hard-working Saskatchewan families and the businesses who are so crucial to our great province.

SaskPower says they need to raise rates 5 per cent this summer and then another 5 per cent just six months later. Mr. Speaker, will someone over there stand up and admit that Sask Party mismanagement is hurting the bottom lines of families throughout Saskatchewan?

The Speaker:— I recognize the Minister of the Economy and SaskPower.

Hon. Mr. Boyd:— Mr. Speaker, due to aging infrastructure and record demands on power, about $1 billion a year is being spent on the grid in Saskatchewan, the power system in our province. Rates are based on future needs for the people of Saskatchewan.

SaskPower has added about 60,000 new customers since 2007. About 82,000 more are projected over the next 10 years, Mr. Speaker, with plans to add over 2000 megawatts of power. As a result of all of that, Mr. Speaker, there’s a need to raise rates here in the province of Saskatchewan by 5 per cent in July and another 5 per cent in January of next year. But even with that, Mr. Speaker, Saskatchewan still enjoys the third-largest basket of utilities here in the country.

The Speaker:— I recognize the member from Saskatoon Nutana.

Ms. Sproule:— Mr. Speaker, do I need to remind the minister about the so-called smart meters? The Sask Party was warned not to use them. They plowed ahead anyways, and then they ended up setting some homes on fire. Then the Sask Party burned through even more money by handing over another $23 million to the manufacturer of those meters. And you didn’t talk about this, Mr. Speaker: there’s also their carbon capture fiasco that cost $1.5 billion, and it has had many, many costly setbacks. Things have gotten so bad, even with rate hikes SaskPower’s debt is still going up.

Now, Mr. Speaker, we’ve got to wonder, is Sask Party taking notes from Ontario’s Kathleen Wynne? Is this mismanagement of SaskPower all a part of a plan to try to privatize it, or have they just mismanaged SaskPower so badly and chose to hide these rate hikes from Saskatchewan people during the election?

The Speaker:— I recognize the Minister of the Economy and SaskPower.

Hon. Mr. Boyd: — Mr. Speaker, with respect to the smart meters, $24 million was received back to the people of Saskatchewan in cash refund, $18 million was received in terms of future purchases, $5 million was received in terms of research and development on a new meter.

After all, Mr. Speaker, the member opposite makes it sound like no one in the world is using those meters, Mr. Speaker. But just recently in Medicine Hat, Alberta, they have about 80,000 of those meters installed with no recorded incidents, Mr. Speaker. Before we would ever go back to try on a smart meter here in Saskatchewan, we’d want to try them under Saskatchewan conditions, Mr. Speaker, to ensure that they can meet the rigorous environmental- and weather-related activities that we have here in the province of Saskatchewan.