REGINA - The struggles of Saskatchewan individuals to cope with rising power bills was a focus at the Legislature on Wednesday.
The opposition New Democrats held a news conference prior to Question Period, calling on the Scott Moe government to establish an independent consumer advocate for power and energy bills.
Opposition Leader Carla Beck and SaskPower Critic Aleana Young called for the independent advocate, while again attacking the government over this year’s SaskPower and SaskEnergy rate hikes.
“Families and small businesses are being squeezed by inflation on one side, and the SaskParty government’s surprise power and energy rate hikes on the other,“ Beck said.
She pointed to the 23 percent hike in SaskEnergy bills brought in with three weeks notice, and an eight per cent hike to power bills.
Opposition Critic Young also noted the current Rate Review Panel wasn’t independent or accessible or representative of consumers or small businesses, and couldn’t go to bat for consumers.
“Every other province in Canada has an independent advocate for utilities,” said Young. “There is no good reason we should not.”
Beck and Young had been scheduled to be joined by an individual who had her power cut off and was unable to get a payment plan, and now was facing eviction. But she was unable to be there because she had to work until 4 a.m. the previous night, and had a second job on top of that.
The NDP noted this was not an isolated case. Young noted to reporters that an “enormous” amount of casework had come through their office over the last number of weeks of people who had fallen behind on their power bills “and have been offered no ability to enter a repayment plan and have been offered no solution to get the power back on.”
Young also said it was her understanding that there used to be a prohibition on power being shut off as of Nov. 1, and said she had emailed the Minister and her colleagues had tried to get an answer to that, but said that to date there has been no response.
Government responds by blasting federal NDP and Liberals
In Question Period Wednesday, Beck asked Premier Scott Moe if they would commit to a consumer advocate, but Moe indicated he would not.
“This is precisely the work that the Rate Review Panel does on behalf of Saskatchewan people,” Premier Moe responded.
Moe then turned to federal government policies as being responsible for the rate increases. “As you implement policies that are solely focused on an environmental basis, Mr. Speaker, your power rates, your gas rates are going to increase.”
Premier Moe then defended the government’s own growth and affordability measures before he blasted federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
“We are a government that is focused on growth that works for everyone, making life affordable in Saskatchewan with $2 billion in each and every budget, $500 tax affordability credits this year, paying down the deficit, Mr. Speaker — in contrast to the NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, who is looking at asking the federal Prime Minister to reduce the GST that’s charged on home heating bills. Mr. Speaker. This is the same individual that is advocating propping up this (Liberal) government so they can charge a Carbon Tax on Saskatchewan people and Canadians, Mr. Speaker. Again, we see the NDP in this nation, saying one thing and doing something quite different.”
Minister for Crown Investment Corporation Don Morgan also pointed to the impact of federal policies in his response to the opposition’s criticism about rate hikes.
“I’d like to urge the members opposite to give us some support in our dealings with the federal government, trying to deal with the Carbon Tax,” said Morgan.
As for the increases, Morgan noted the SaskPower rates would rise four percent as of September 2022 and another four percent in April 2023.
“The average customer will see their bills increase by five dollars a month. Mr. Speaker, I don’t want to minimize for some people what the effect of five dollars per month is. It’s something that’s not taken lightly, it’s based on a process done by the Rate Review Panel. We want to respect that process, and Mr. Speaker, we’ll continue to deal with it.”
Morgan further pointed out that Saskatchewan had the second lowest utility rate bundle in Canada.
As for the process before the power is cut off, Morgan responded “disconnections are always the last resort when payment arrangements cannot be committed to or are defaulted on.
“Both SaskPower and Energy work diligently with all of the customers to establish a mutually agreed upon payment arrangement that allow customers to catch up on payments without being disconnected. It is ultimately the customers’ responsibility to ensure payments remain up-to-date and to contact the Crown if they need to change their payment arrangements. After an account is three months outstanding and the arrangements are not met, the customer is then eligible for disconnection.”
When critic Young pressed Morgan for the government “pushing through rate hikes without adequate oversight during a generational cost of living crisis,” Morgan responded saying the NDP “simply have no credibility on this matter whatsoever.”
“They have an obligation to go back to Justin (Trudeau) and Jagmeet (Singh) and say this is a problem for us. You cannot continue to layer on carbon tax on our province. You cannot continue to raise things 10, 20, and 30 per cent. That is what’s not fair, and that is something, Mr. Speaker, that the members opposite have some degree of control over.”
Morgan urged the opposition to make those calls, adding “I understand why they uninvited Jagmeet Singh to their convention,” to which another MLA quipped they later reinvited him. “Mr. Speaker, it is a good opportunity for them to reach out and do the right thing right now… they have an opportunity, they ought to use that opportunity.”