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Weyburn Chamber members question Finance minister on budget details

Questions arose on the PST, the debt and health care

WEYBURN – Questions about the PST and health care initiatives were raised with Finance Minister Donna Harpauer, as the Weyburn Chamber of Commerce hosted her for a question-and-answer session on Thursday, along with Education minister and Weyburn-Big Muddy MLA Dustin Duncan.

Harpauer first presented a brief overview of the budget she brought down in the legislature on March 23, then took questions from those in attendance for the round-table gathering, held at Weyburn’s Credit Union Spark Centre.

Shandel Clark noted that PST on the construction of new homes was implemented a while ago, and asked if there will be any discussion on removing it.

“We’re not seeing a lot of growth in new buildings,” she said.

The province has a new home construction PST credit is rebated for homes of up to $450,000 in value, noted Harpauer, and said they would not likely revisit the PST until the finances are more balanced. She also pointed out that the federal sales tax includes the lot price, but Saskatchewan does not.

The question was asked if the province was going to consider harmonizing their sales tax with the federal GST, and Harpauer said not at this time, quipping she’d be in even more trouble now if the sales taxes were broadened to include all the items the GST applies to.

As it is, the PST will be broadened as of Oct. 1 to include movies, concerts, gym memberships and sporting events, with an additional $21 million expected to be raised.

“I’m super optimistic that we’re going to balance the budget before 2026,” she said, adding she would advise the next finance minister to drop the PST back down to five per cent once balance is achieved.

Larry Heggs, executive director for the Chamber, noted that the budget’s forecasts for things like the price of commodities is on the conservative side.

“With oil and gas, we go to the private industry to lead the way,” she replied. Noting Alberta’s budget came down two weeks before Saskatchewan’s, they had forecast oil at $70 a barrel, but the price had changed enough for Harpauer to put the forecast a $75 a barrel.

“Now how long will this hold? A large part of it is geopolitics,” said Harpauer, adding, “We do rely on industry for these forecasts.”

She added they want to forecast on the low side and have the actual price higher, rather than the reverse and be found short of revenues as a result.

Harpauer also noted that she’s made a concerted effort not to use as much resource revenues as a percentage of provincial revenues.

“This budget is just under 17 per cent, but I’m not comfortable with that. I don’t know if 15 per cent is the magic number … but we’re still paying on bill in the previous budget,” she said, noting she was able to put about $450 million towards writing down the operating debt for the last fiscal year, so now the debt is less than $10 billion. She pointed out that in the past they have used resource revenue for as much as 32 per cent of the overall revenues.

The province had to borrow during the pandemic just to operate, to make it through that very tough period, she added, but they came out with the second lowest debt-to-GDP ratio in the country.