REGINA - Overshadowed in the uproar over Colin Thatcher’s appearance at the Speech from the Throne was the announcement this week that the 34 Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority stores will be closing.
But that news was not lost on SLGA employees and union members. They staged a protest Thursday morning outside the Saskatchewan legislature in opposition to the move.
The unions were protesting job losses associated with the impending closure of the remaining government-owned SLGA liquor stores. On Thursday, SLGA minister Lori Carr outlined some further details on what the process will be.
In speaking to reporters, Carr confirmed that 284 full time equivalent jobs will be impacted. The actual closing dates will vary, but all stores will be closed by March 31, 2023.
Physical assets, including 19 buildings owned by SLGA, fixtures and equipment, will be sold in a separate process. The province states that SLGA will work with the Saskatchewan Government and General Employees' Union to negotiate a workforce adjustment plan for affected employees.
The indication from Carr is the first stores will close in January when the lease is due. But they will still be operating through Christmas this year.
As for the retail permits associated with the 34 stores, those will be sold to new private operators in a public online auction process beginning in early January 2023. Anyone who wishes to bid can do so, but they must still qualify to hold a commercial liquor permit by passing the good character references and other requirements. Carr said the bidding will only be on the license itself, not on the physical buildings where the liquor stores are located.
Not impacted is SLGA's Distribution Centre. SLGA will also continue to operate as wholesaler of beverage alcohol as well as regulator of liquor, gaming and cannabis.
In the legislature Thursday during Question Period, Minister Carr further explained some of the rationale for why the 34 retail stores are closing, as stated in Hansard:
“Mr. Speaker, the 34 stores that comprise SLGA retail have seen their net income decline by 96 per cent since 2018. This is expected to continue to decline, and that SLGA retail will begin to lose money in the coming years. Currently it makes up less than one per cent of SLGA revenue, contrary to what members opposite think. Profits in ’21-22 were $3.2 million, with projections for ’22-23 at $395,000.
“Initial estimates indicate it would take significant capital spending to make SLGA retail outlets competitive again, with no guarantee that this spending would result in a return in investment. This is money that could go towards new schools, hospitals, or even highways, Mr. Speaker.”
It turned out to be a testy exchange with Opposition critic Aleana Young over the SLGA closures. Young criticized the Sask Party's job creation performance, but when she pointed out that “firing hundreds and hundreds of workers across the province is actually going to make the jobs numbers worse,” Carr responded by pulling out a few quotes on the topic.
“Mr. Speaker, I have some supportive quotes I’d like to read into the record. The first quote being, ‘I believe that the Saskatchewan government should phase out running any liquor stores. I honestly believe it’s time to rip the band-aid off.’ Second quote, Mr. Speaker: ‘I see the benefits of having private corporations run these stores. These privately run stores are doing an excellent job of servicing the Saskatchewan community.’ Quote number three, Mr. Speaker: ‘The SLGA should immediately consider shifting its liquor retail permit structure to mirror that of the cannabis permit policies it holds.’
"Mr. Speaker, these quotes are from the new member from Saskatoon Meewasin and the NDP SLGA critic.”
Carr was referring to an email sent from Nathaniel Teed, who was elected in the Saskatoon Meewasin byelection in September. It was sent when Teed was still a private citizen.
In response, Young accused Carr of “playing cheap politics when people are going to be going without a paycheque.”
In her scrum to reporters, Carr insisted that new jobs would be available at the private liquor stores being created.
“There will be lots of opportunities for private industry to buy those retail stores and there will be jobs for people in the industry,” said Carr.
Any groups of employees who wished to bid for retail store licenses are encouraged to do so, however Carr indicated there will not be a preference during the auction process.
As for why profits had declined at the existing SLGA stores, Carr believed “what has happened is people have choice and they’ve chosen where they want to buy their liquor.”
She anticipates all 34 permits will be sold. “So that means the same number of stores will be out there and I would assume you would need the same number of employees to run those stores.”
Opposition leader Carla Beck was critical of the SLGA closures and argued the Sask Party government did not have a good record in creating full time jobs. She pointed to a one per cent growth rate in full-time jobs over the past decade.
“This is a government that has a hard time keeping full-time jobs in this province, we’ve had fewer full-time jobs created in this province than Prince Edward Island in the last 10 years.“
As for the email quotes from MLA Teed, “I have spoken with Mr. Teed - he is fully on board with our position, which is the shuttering of the public liquor stores and effectively throwing 400 people out of work before Christmas is wrong… and the fact that this private email was distributed is a concern in and of itself.”
New Crown corporation: Lotteries and Gaming Saskatchewan
In addition to divesting the liquor stores, there are plans for the government to split off the gaming portion from SLGA and form a new Crown corporation.
The province will be establishing Lotteries and Gaming Saskatchewan on April 1, 2023, which will consolidate management oversight for casinos, VLTs, lotteries and online gaming.
Saskatchewan Gaming Corporation will be reconfigured as a wholly-owned subsidiary, while continuing to operate Casinos Regina and Moose Jaw. Management of the VLT program will move to the new corporation as well as online gaming from SaskGaming. Lotteries will continue to be operated by SaskLotteries (SaskSport) and Western Canada Lottery Corporation but overseen by The new Crown.
Carr said in a statement that “separating management and regulatory functions for the lotteries and gaming sector aligns with gaming best practices," and the changes “will ensure SLGA is operating as an independent regulator of the sector in the province."