The NDP is unhappy with many sectors of this year’s provincial budget.
© Daily Herald staff
“When we look at the budget that was received this year, we know it falls short on the priorities we have been hearing from Saskatchewan families,” said Trent Wotherspoon, finance critic for the Opposition. “We recognize that Saskatchewan families are going to be disappointed with what is in this budget and not in this budget.”
“This budget, although we have a strong economy and it might be working well for some government, it really is not delivering the goods where they count for Saskatchewan families,” he added. “It is a budget full of cuts and crumbs.”
Since the province currently has a strong economy, the government has an unprecedented opportunity to fund important priorities since there are 50 per cent more revenues than there were a few years ago, he said, but instead they fall short in many areas.
One of the main areas they are not properly addressing is seniors’ care, claimed Wotherspoon.
“There are far too many seniors of this province not receiving the dignity of care they deserve, minimum standards or quality of care they deserve,” Wotherspoon said. “Facing this crisis, we were expecting action from the government, we were expecting investment and what we see is there is not a single new dollar to address seniors’ care in this province and that is simply wrong and falls short on important priorities for Saskatchewan families.”
The Opposition also wanted to see more support in health care around the province.
“We know the challenges in emergency services, we know the challenge to access doctors and what this government has actually done is asked health regions and the cancer agency to cut 51 million from their budget, if you can imagine,” Wotherspoon said. “At a time where there are challenges in health care, where far too many across Saskatchewan aren’t getting the services or accessing the professionals they deserve, cutting $51 million just doesn’t make any sense.”
He said the impact of that cut will be felt in the coming weeks and months when health regions are forced to make difficult decisions.
Although there were cuts made to health regions, the government earmarked $2 million for Victoria Hospital renewals, but Wotherspoon said this could also prove to be a challenge in the future.
“Up in Prince Albert, you see this little bit of money that is flowing there right now but I think if we looked at the experience of other communities, it is going to be really important to people of Prince Albert to continue to put pressure on this front to make sure that government is ready to go with the rest of the dollars to get the job done,” he said.
In the past, the government has made promises that they have not followed through on.
“We have seen from this government on too many projects a little bit of token dollars flow on the front end of a project so thy can include it in a budget but then we don’t always see the follow through of government,” Wotherspoon said. “In this case here, we will see what they are expecting to get out of that $2 million but we know that Prince Albert needs a much bigger investment than that to make sure the hospital is realized.”
“We will be working with municipal leaders and health leaders of the region, getting their perspective and pushing to make sure Prince Albert gets the hospital it deserves.”
Education is another area the government has failed to support, Wotherspoon said.
“We have been speaking to parents and teachers, students and we recognize that the classroom of today is under great pressure,” he said. “This government has made all sorts of cuts and restraints in education, which has meant the elimination of many supports that gave one-on-one support to students.”
There have been cuts to educational associates, massive class size increases and overcrowding, which all have an impact on the students, who are not receiving enough one-on-one attention.
The budget also cuts $23 million from the capital budget to build and repair schools that are needed in the province, Wotherspoon said.
Saskatchewan families are struggling with affordability, making tough day-to-day decisions in their homes, Wotherspoon said.
“This government seems really out of touch with the reality of many Saskatchewan families, the reality being that families are working harder and harder just to keep up and feeling as though they are sliding behind, many feelings as though they are having to make some really tough choices within their own households,” Wotherspoon said. “This government seems not to understand that reality at all.
“We called for measures to be put in place to address affordability in the province and there is simply not a measure at all to do that,” he added.
Not only are there hikes to utility bills for families, they are also bearing the brunt of the reduction of the municipal operating grant, he said.
“Despite the fact we are growing as a province and communities are growing, that the government has actually reduced the municipal operating grant to municipalities across Saskatchewan,” Wotherspoon said. “We know who picks up the tab on that one -- it is the property taxpayers, the families and businesses in Saskatchewan.”
There were also significant cuts in agriculture, Wotherspoon said.
“At a time when we have producers who did the hard work last year of producing a record group all for not now for it to sitting in bins because of the inability to get it to market, the transportation crisis and the inactions of governments, we need to make sure this is a time when we stand with our producers and support our producers,” he said.
Another disappointment was the lack of money flowing into the Futures Fund, Wotherspoon said.
“We were disappointed with the broken promise of the premier, the flip-flop as it relates to the Futures Fund,” he said. “The Futures Fund was a fund in principle the idea was to take a little bit of the resource wealth from today and put it away for the long term to ensure sustainability and prosperity for the future.
“The premier had committed his support to this just a couple months ago and now in this budget we have seen a departure from that, we have seen him backing away from that and it is a disappointing broken promise and it is a failed opportunity for Saskatchewan people”
The government put aside money for many infrastructure projects in the province, but failed to address Prince Albert’s need for a second bridge.
“I find it astonishing that the government continues to dismiss, ignore and reject the common sense call from Prince Albert with the second bridge,” Wotherspoon said. “The need for it is significant and it is really disappointed to see no commitment to that second bridge.
“We are going to continue to call for that second bridge, stand with the people, families and businesses of Prince Albert and the north in calling for that second bridge,” he added.
Wotherspoon noted that the commuter bridge announced in Saskatoon did not have any money attached to it, which also poses a problem.
“When we are calling for a bridge to funded, or any infrastructure to be funded, what we want to make sure we see is not just a mention of it in the budget, but make sure there is a dollar allocation as well,” Wotherspoon said.
In 2007, the government made a similar announcement regarding a school and long-term care facilities, he said.
“It is sort of like writing a cheque but not having a date on it so it can actually be cashed,” Wotherspoon explained. “It is not even a post-dated cheque, because we don’t know if that is going to be delivered next year, two years from now or when it is going to be the case -- or is it going to be like the school I mentioned that was announced back in 2007 and here we are seven years later and it had never received funding?”
“It seems this government has a bit of a habit of offering out a bunch of promises, kind of filling out the memo line of the cheque but they are forgetting to fill in the date and actually meet the needs of communities,” he added.
Wotherspoon said he finds the budget wasteful on many fronts, including continuing to fund LEAN management instead of front-line workers.
“They have actually put together a cash cow of a contract with Saskatchewan taxpayers dollars and shipped it to an American contractor firm on a Japanese Kaizan project which we are hearing is really failing health care and not making health care and seniors’ care better,” Wotherspoon said. “That $40-million contract represents dollars that could have better been placed onto the front lines of health care.
“We are calling for those dollars to be diverted and placed directly in the front lines of health care and seniors care,” he added.
The government was considering raising taxes on credit unions in the province, which play an important role in the economy of Saskatchewan, Wotherspoon said.
“We advocated and pushed the government to make sure they didn’t hike the taxes on credit unions, who actually do more than 50 per cent of the small and medium business lending in Saskatchewan,” Wotherspoon said. “We were pleased to seethe government chose to set aside its plan to hike those taxes.”
Another controversial item the government evidentially set aside was raising the education tax to pay for infrastructure.
“Quite simply, we stated very clearly in advance of the budget that families could not afford this increase and we reminded the premier that he had more than adequate resources within his budget with a 50 per cent increase in revenues to meet the needs of today,” Wotherspoon said.
Since there have been problems with accurate reporting in the past, the Opposition also supports reporting the finances on a summary basis.
“This is something we have been calling for but it is going to require more work from government and we will be tracking it through its implementation,” Wotherspoon said. “It is notable this is a government that misled Saskatchewan people with their finances for years and they are the first government in Canada’s history to actually fail an audit for misleading Saskatchewan people as it relates to their finances.
“We know when they failed that audit and when they were manipulating the books, their response initially was to brush it off and dismiss the auditors concerns,” he added. “We are pleased to see a shift towards summary of finances but we will continue to make sure the books are honest and transparent.
“We made it very clear going into this budget that nothing short of honest books that Saskatchewan people could trust would be acceptable to us as the official opposition.”
Other reactions to the budget
Many other groups and organizations had reactions after hearing about this year’s provincial budget. The Daily Herald sorted through the many reactions by email. Here’s a sampling:
• The Progressive Conservative Party of Saskatchewan was please to see the government move to reporting the budget on a summary financial basis, but was disappointed with the government not being open and honest with the taxpayers.
“The Finance Minister, however, continues to fall into his old habits by telling the people of this province that he had cut the amount paid on the province's deficit by $53 million when in actual fact, the total debt of the province went up by over $900 million. This means that the total debt of the province has increased by over $4 billion in the time of the SaskParty governments,” read their press release.
• The Saskatchewan Greens saw both good things, such as continued work on infrastructure, and bad, such as the lack of funding to the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources.
“The Environment budget should be growing at a time when the number of environment-related issues across the province is growing.”
• The Service Employees International Union West (SEIU-West) said the budget was not fair to the people of Saskatchewan.
“What was presented today raises a lot of questions for those of us who live, work and contribute to a vibrant Saskatchewan,” said Janice Platzke, treasurer of SEIU-West. “This budget doesn’t even scratch the surface of the overwhelming needs in health care and education.”
• SUMA was pleased with the support of the municipalities in the province but still had some concerns.
“Saskatchewan’s villages, towns and cities have been repeatedly promised support by the federal government to meet the challenges posed by aging infrastructure,” said Debra Button, SUMA president and mayor of Weyburn. “But despite the immediate need for infrastructure investment in our communities, we are still left waiting for details and risk missing an important construction season.”
• The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour were disappointed the budget did not reflect the needs of the people.
“Many working people are naturally optimistic prior to the unveiling of a provincial budget,” said Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich, “because it represents an important opportunity. A government could use the provincial budget as a tool to address fundamental challenges within our economy, to establish a more fair economy. Unfortunately, that is not what we saw today.”
• Unlike the NDP, the Association of Saskatchewan Realtors were disappointed the government did not raise educational taxes to deal with infrastructure repair.
“CEO Bill Madder said REALTORS hoped the budget would include a commitment to begin converting the provincial education property tax levy to deal with the so-called infrastructure deficit. He said infrastructure catch-up is critical due to lack of attention in the past that is now driving steep increases in property taxes,” their release read.
• Saskatchewan Advocate, a Voice For Children and Youth, was pleased to see increased spending in the Child and Family agenda by $8.7 million.
“I’m encouraged with the direction government is taking in addressing the education and employment gaps for First Nations and Metis people, developing a mental health and addictions action plan, and adding more prekindergarten and childcare spaces, positive parenting programs and other services for families,” advocate Bob Pringle said.
• SIAST described the budget as an investment in the future.
“We see this budget as an investment in the province’s future,” SIAST president and CEO Dr. Larry Rosia said. “Increased funding for apprenticeship training and for international student support, for instance, will help grow Saskatchewan’s economy.”
• The Canadian Federation of Independent Business was pleased to see a balanced budget with controlled spending and no tax hike.
“Overall this balanced budget keeps Saskatchewan moving forward. We all know good is the enemy of great. That’s why it will be important for CFIB to lobby the government to continue to create the conditions for small businesses to grow and expand in the months ahead. Being competitive is a moving target and we must continue to sharpen our competitive edge,” said Marilyn Braun- Pollon, CFIB’s vice president, Prairie and Agri-business.
• The Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) was happy to see rural investments announced in the budget.
“During a time of fiscal constraint, we commend the provincial government’s ability to secure a balanced budget while maintaining current funding levels for many important programs and initiatives that benefit rural Saskatchewan,” said David Marit, President of SARM.
• The Health Sciences Association of Saskatchewan said the government should require increased public accountability and transparency from health regions.
“The 2014-2015 Saskatchewan Provincial Budget will provide Saskatchewan health regions with $3.25 Billion in the coming year. That is a 3.4 per cent increase ($107.5 million) from the current budget year,” president Karen Wasylenko said. “This additional public money should come with a requirement for increased public accountability and transparency from health region managers. Saskatchewan taxpayers have the right to know what level of health care services to expect from the expenditure of these additional tax dollars.”
• The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce said the budget was within their business expectations.
“The province has put forth a budget that, while dealing with demands for increased expenditures due to growth and the cost of living, has managed overall expectations across the board,” said CEO Steve McLellan. “First and foremost, it is balanced. We are also pleased with the move to summary income statements, which will provide a greater degree of transparency and accountability.”