Fiscal challenges were at the forefront of Donna Harpauer’s address to the SARM convention on Wednesday morning. She struck a balance between celebrating the positives and citing the realities.
While the economy is more diversified and resilient than ever before, the other ‘nagging reality’ is that low commodity prices have plagued the province for the past three years, she said.
Officials have been giving Saskatchewan residents fair warning for the past couple of months about fiscal challenges. Now we’ve been warned to brace ourselves for next week’s budget. “It will be a tough budget, there’s no getting around it,” said Harpauer. She repeated the now familiar refrain that ‘everything is on the table’ to reduce the deficit.
“Austerity is still going to be the watchword in the coming fiscal year not only for us but also for you our municipal partners,” she told SARM delegates, reminding them that this government will not ‘kick the can down the road’ for some later administration to deal with. “We’re going to deal with the deficit problem now, and in the upcoming budget we will have a plan.”
Harpauer noted that although revenue sharing has reached record levels, it is tied to the PST, and those numbers are down because of the province’s fiscal challenges. The province intends to review the distribution of the funds.
“Our government recognizes and appreciates that industries such as agriculture, oil, gas and mining are critical drivers of our economy. They are located in rural Saskatchewan. We will keep that in mind as we undertake the review of the municipal revenue sharing formula,” Harpauer said, adding that urban Saskatchewan may be the engine of the province but the fuel comes from rural Saskatchewan.
Harpauer also noted that the global marketplace is a bit more uncertain these days with protectionism on the rise in many nations, and established trade agreements are under greater scrutiny. She underscored the importance of the $1.4 trillion mutually beneficial Canada-US trade-investment relationship, which is crucial for our province. Brad Wall is currently in Des Moines, Iowa working to strengthen that relationship.
A Bear Pit session with the provincial cabinet followed Harpauer’s address, and she anticipated ‘frank discussions’ would continue within that forum. Questions regarding the fiscal challenges, the possible amalgamation of school divisions, Moose Jaw’s hyperbaric chamber, orphan wells, school speed zones, the language of Bill 44, flood mitigation and education were posed by delegates.
Jeanne-Marie DeMoissac from the RM of Biggar asked Education Minister Don Morgan if the ministry would consider distance learning going forward. “The taxes collected by the RMs in the province are at a premium. We are paying gourmet meal prices and our children are getting fed Kraft dinner education. Our schools have turned from places that educate people into places that employ very many expensive people.” DeMoissac said with the huge advances in technology more successes in distance learning are taking place.
Morgan welcomed the question, saying that while the current model involves brick and mortar classrooms and libraries, “it’s time we reconsider and look at some other options that are there.” He cited a Distance Learning Centre at a division in Kenaston that is worth a tour.
Rod Wiens from the RM of Mountain View drew attention to the province’s low rate of organ donation. Jim Reiter, Minister of Health said the province will be making an announcement in the next couple of months.
“We’re going to look at going as far down the presumed consent road as we can while still recognizing there’s individual concerns, there’s religious concerns, so there needs to be an appropriate opt out provision. We’re very optimistic that we’re going to do much, much better in Saskatchewan,” Reiter said.
The SARM convention runs until March 16.