Budget Of Rage

The province doesn’t care for Brad Wall’s austerity jamboree

Feature | by Paul Dechene

Calling around to get comment on the Saskatchewan Party’s 2017 budget felt very much like phoning a thesaurus hotline to get synonyms for “awful.”

You get used to listening to political fence-sitting when you do interviews about whatever it is the province is cutting this week. And that isn’t surprising: Brad Wall holds many purse strings, and he swings a sharp pair of scissors.

But this time, the people representing the people who’re directly impacted by the provincial budget weren’t pulling any punches.

Punishing The Poor

“I was shocked,” says Peter Gilmer of Regina Anti-Poverty Ministry. “I thought that after the battle over the SAID [Saskatchewan Assured Income for Disability] cuts last year there might be some pause but I was really surprised. There’s a wide range of really hurtful cuts in this budget to low income people.”

Gilmer says this despite the fact that the Social Services budget was one of the few line items to actually see an increase — 9.1 per cent, in fact.

“Here’s the problem,” says Gilmer. “The reason the costs are going up in Social Services is because the usage is going up. It has nothing to do with the program.”

He lists as particularly harsh measures the cuts to the Transitional Employment Allowance and the ending of funding for funerals costs for families on assistance.

“The [Saskatchewan Transportation Company] cut is another one worth talking about on our end. We have a lot of rural clients and one of the issues we’re hearing about all the time is how difficult it is for people to get to their medical appointments. This cut is going to make it that much worse.

“What’s most infuriating to me is they’re doing this at exactly the same that they’re cutting income taxes to the highest income tax earners. This across the board income tax cut is going to funnel considerable resources into the hands of the highest income people in the province. And then combining that with a corporate tax cut. Having us paying the lowest corporate taxes in the country at the same time that we’re carrying out these vicious cuts to people living in poverty is absolutely infuriating.”

Punishing Post-Secondary

Dave Button, VP of Administration for the University of Regina described his mood as “shocked, surprised and disappointed” upon discovering the extent of cuts post-secondary institutions  face in the province.

“It was more than a five per cent cut to our budget. We got 5 per cent from just our straight operating grant but then there were a number of other very significant cuts that came through as well, not the least of which is a cut to our Johnson Shoyama School of Public Policy of $237,000. And a very significant cut to scholarships, a program called the Saskatchewan Innovation and Opportunity Scholarship that amounts to an eight per cent cut and dollar value $476,000. And there are others but those were the big ones.”

Button says before the budget came out, the university was bracing to take a hit but no one was prepared for anything this significant.

Given that 75 per cent of a university’s budget is set in stone in the form of negotiated salaries, they have very little flexibility to deal with this.

According to Button, that means it’s unlikely that the university will be able to avoid raising tuitions.

When asked if news of the cuts made him angry, Button replies, “Absolutely.

“It’s not so much about the numbers but what it says about the value of universities,” he says. “That’s what’s important. That’s what’s frustrating. People see us as a— or perhaps this budget sees us as a liability and not an asset, or as an expense rather than an investment.”

Punishing Cities

The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association is the organization that represents and lobbies for the interests of cities and towns in the province, and SUMA’s CEO, Laurent Mougeot, did have one good thing to say about the provincial budget: at least they didn’t touch the PST revenue sharing. That’s the program that provides a stable stream of funding to cities.

That the province decided to end the Grants In Lieu program was not as well received.

Under that program, cities are compensated for the taxes that SaskPower and SaskTel should be paying. Ending these grants will cost the city of Saskatoon $10.3 million and the city of Regina $10.7 million. Both cities have held emergency meetings to deal with this surprise change in their fortunes. Saskatoon city council is considering legal action to block the move. Regina will be considering its options and holding a special budget meeting on April 10 to decide how to make up the shortfall.

According to Mougeot, it is particularly frustrating that the grants were ended without any consultation with cities.

“What is not appreciated is the backhand way of clawing back on revenue sharing but doing it in a way that is unannounced when [cities] have already gone through 25 per cent of our fiscal year. So we have to make these adjustments after municipal budgets have been prepared,” says Mougeot.

He also notes that the Grants in Lieu program has only been ended for the top 109 municipalities (out of 720) in the province. Grants for rural municipalities remain intact.

“A lot of things have happened throughout the province and I thought we were part of this partnership to build a new Saskatchewan. But, dang, this is what’s happening? It’s really difficult to understand why the municipal sector would be impacted in such a way. It leaves elected officials in a very, very difficult situation. When Yorkton is losing the equivalent of 54 per cent of their revenue sharing, there’s a problem.”

Punishing Workers

“It’s a very punishing budget. Quite mean-spirited and short-sighted,” says Larry Hubich, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour. “There’s not a page in that budget that doesn’t damage Saskatchewan citizens.”

And while Hubich has nothing good to say about the budget, he’s especially pessimistic about the province even being able to pull off one of its marquee cuts: the 3.5% reduction in public sector compensation.

“Unless the government legislates it, it’s impossible for them to achieve their 3.5% wage rollback because unions are not in a position to do that without having the members vote.”

But despite all his pessimism, Hubich was the only person I spoke to who found a silver lining in this budgetary black cloud.

“I think this may be the tipping point for a lot of people who are finally realizing that the premier’s only interest are corporations, the privileged few he agrees to meet with and the oil patch,” says Hubich. “That’s his primary support base. And really he’s prepared to throw everybody else under the bus.

“But he’s not prepared to do anything that would upset his corporate backers.” ❧