Saskatoon StarPhoenix

Sask. budget butting heads with new reality


Perhaps the Saskatchew­an Party would be better off ditching the obligatory title for Wednesday’s 2020-21 budget and go with something that’s more of a qualifier.

How about the tried and trusted movie qualifier: “Based on a true story”?

It beats a whole lot of other of other Hollywood movie names Finance Minister Donna Harpauer could borrow: Skyfall? Contagion? The Day After Tomorrow? Let’s just hope this budget movie plays at 24 frames per second instead of the slow-moe pace this Saskatchew­an Party government has used to respond to COVID-19.

At a time when we are talking about having to close schools indefinite­ly to deal with a worldwide pandemic and even closing our borders to non-canadians, there are few Saskatchew­an budgets that will seem as trite as Wednesday’s presentati­on. Right now, it very much feels we are dealing with a crisis as the World Health Organizati­on (WHO) stresses that — no matter whatever else we do — we move with haste.

Yet here in Saskatchew­an we have responded with dogged determinat­ion to be the last. Premier Scott Moe’s government was about the last in the country to limit public gatherings (that only came into effect on Monday) and close schools (that actually doesn’t officially come into effect until Friday). Five days ago, Moe and company were still planning for a spring election, quite literally laughing at the notion from NDP Opposition Leader Ryan Meili (Dr. Doom, they dubbed him) that the coronaviru­s should disrupt anything.

Well, no one is laughing now ... unless they are capable of somehow finding humour in the notion that the only thing this government seems in hurry to do is present a 2020-21 budget that will be exceedingl­y hard to believe. Bizarrely, the very first thing the government should have and could have cancelled — if for no other reason than the numbers will not make any sense in the context of the market collapse during the past two weeks — is going ahead on Wednesday.

What might be most realistic in Wednesday’s budget is an expected one-page qualifying addendum expected to accompany the document that will at least acknowledg­e the problems of the recent economic realities — realities for which the Sask. Party government surely cannot be blamed.

It will not provide updated numbers reflecting the Us$30-a-barrel price of oil (West Texas Intermedia­te, as of this writing). The projected oil revenue ($737 million in the 2019-20 fiscal year, which ends in two weeks) for 2020-21 will be based on something slightly less than $60 a barrel, which will be something similar to last year. Government officials were confident that the decline in oil revenue will be compensate­d by increases in income, corporate and sales tax revenue that should help to increase total revenues to around three per cent so that this will be a surplus budget.

There is also hope that the market-induced pension liability hit will not be as severe to operationa­l cost.

However, that confidence is largely based on Saskatchew­an enjoying a steady economy and that would seem rather unpredicta­ble in light of the market crashes and change in spending patterns following the COVID-19 outbreaks that will surely impact revenues from things like restaurant­s, bars and casinos.

Most significan­tly, this remains an election budget with plenty of goodies to entice voters and will increase spending around three per cent. But even before the COVID-19 impact was being taken seriously, government types were preaching fiscal discipline. As one source put it: “We aren’t going crazy with infrastruc­ture, but we’re spending on infrastruc­ture.”

The Sask. Party government will be combating overcrowde­d classrooms with plans for new schools. There will be more operationa­l money for highways, education and health, specifical­ly to address things like the fentanyl/ opioid crisis.

The budget name? Bet that it will be something with the word “building” because most budgets — and especially most election budgets — are about signalling such growth and prosperity. But as it stands right now, there’s only a vague hope that the 2020-21 budget can live up to its pre-release hype.

This budget show is only going to be modestly based on today’s reality.

Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-post and Saskatoon Starphoeni­x.

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