REGINA - Reaction was swift on Wednesday after finance minister Donna Harpauer presented Saskatchewan’s 2023-24 budget.
The focus of interest groups at the legislature quickly zeroed in on the $1 billion surplus, and the decision by the province to retire $1 billion in operational debt in the provincial budget.
In speaking to reporters Wednesday, Premier Scott Moe defended the decision to address the debt.
“What we have decided with interest rates increased, this was in the best interests of Saskatchewan people to pay down this operational debt and to ensure we aren’t paying that increased interest rate years into the future. That will save us tens of millions of dollars this year and years into the future. Those are dollars that we are ultimately can reinvest into the very programs that we did change for example in this budget.”
But the decision to pay down debt, instead of using that extra $1 billion on more spending priorities drew some mixed reactions.
Advocates for business organizations at the Legislature on Wednesday were supportive of the government getting its fiscal house in order and paying down the debt, but saw a missed opportunity to cut the expanded PST or address affordability concerns. While there was some targeted relief to some individuals, it was well short of the $500 cheques announced last August that were distributed to Saskatchewan residents over age 18.
It was the affordability issue that the opposition particularly hammered the government on during the first post-budget Question Period on Thursday morning, as recorded in Hansard.
“During a cost-of-living crisis, when 55 per cent of Saskatchewan people feel worse off this year than they did last year, how could that tired and out-of-touch Premier fail to deliver any relief at all to Saskatchewan families struggling to make ends meet?” said Opposition Leader Carla Beck.
“There’s a tired and out-of-touch party in this Assembly; I’m just not sure that they’re on the government side, Mr. Speaker,” was Moe’s response.
Finance critic Trent Wotherspoon asked “just how out of touch does a government need to become to ignore small businesses and refuse to provide any relief from the rate hikes for households and local businesses already facing so many challenges and costs added by that government?”
“That is the sound of irresponsibility that will keep them on that side of the House for a great long period of time,” responded Minister of Crown and Central Services Don Morgan.
While affordability was one concern, spending increases were another. There were increases seen across the board in the budget to health care, education, social services and other areas. But on Budget Day, advocates from labour, health care and education raised common complaints that those increases fell well short of what was needed.
“This budget provides a small increase to the operation side for education,” said Jaimie Smith-Windsor of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association on Wednesday. “It does not meet what boards were needing or expecting in terms of meeting the inflationary costs they are experiencing. It does not meet the expectations for enrolment growth in school divisions, and it doesn’t meet what boards need in operating funds to deliver the kinds of programs and services that we need to be focused on.”
When asked about those concerns from SSBA on Wednesday, Education Minister Dustin Duncan said the funding was “not nothing. We’re talking about $2 billion to educate 190,000 students in this province.”
Duncan did point to a 2.5 percent increase equating to $49.4 million going to school operating budgets.
“Again, what we try to do is address the pressures that we know divisions are going to have,” said Duncan, pointing in particular to enrolment growth and non-salary inflationary pressures.
Duncan was also asked about the reaction from Saskatchewan Teachers Federation that the money for education isn’t enough to address classroom cuts. In particular, he was asked about STF’s calls for an increase of $400 million more to education to meet the needs.
Duncan noted they moved down from that number in the days going into the budget. “So I know they’ve changed kind of where their number was, but they never formally presented us with a $400 million ask.”
Organized labour had a variety of concerns about the budget. Judy Henley, President of CUPE Saskatchewan, believed the increases wouldn’t be enough for workers to keep up with the cost of living.
“Absolutely not,” said Henley. “In healthcare, especially, a lot of the workers are not full-time. A lot of the jobs are part time, in relief. There’s no guarantee of full-time hours. So that is one of the reasons why people don’t stay in healthcare, because there’s no incentive to stay in healthcare. They need to create more full-time jobs.”
She added there “is absolutely not any investment, really, in the Public services. Education has struggled for years.”
Henley said even with “record breaking” education funding, “we still saw layoffs of teachers, layoffs of providers, hours cut, cleaning reduced.”
Health care unions raised particular alarm bells about the funding going to that sector. Tracy Zambory of the Saskatchewan Union of Nurses issued a statement on the union’s website denouncing the budget.
“I write to you all today to express my profound disappointment with the provincial budget,” Zambory stated. “This budget contains nothing new that recognizes the dedication of registered nurses, nor the state of the overwhelmed, overburdened, and collapsed healthcare system. Nothing. This budget does nothing to recognize the severity of the registered nursing shortage and the threat that poses to the safety of patients.“
Sarah Nickel, a fourth year nursing student and co-president of the Health Sciences Students Association, expressed further concerns on Wednesday that many people were still being excluded from the incentives for health care recruiting.
“When you look at the fine print, it’s almost propaganda, because pretty much they’re saying that they’re doing these incentives, but realistically on the ground, that’s not what’s happening.”
In speaking to reporters Wednesday, Health Minister Paul Merriman insisted the budget “would shore up our human resources.”
“This is a budget to invest back into the healthcare system not just in capital but also in operating; our surgical wait list, where we are looking at targeting over 100000 surgeries for our province,” he said. Merriman also pointed to physician assistants, as well as “significant investment in Mental Health and Addictions.”
When asked about the reaction from the SUN union the following day, Thursday, Merriman pointed to having heard from frontline workers about the need to bring in more workers.
“Again, 250 positions is very significant that we brought in last year. 400 Filipino nurses that are coming in, this is significant.”