REGINA – Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall has joked that deficits are like potato chips — not good for your long-term health and bet you can’t stop at just one.
But Wall wasn’t joking Wednesday after his government tabled a budget with a projected $434-million deficit.
“I don’t like it at all. My analogy doesn’t work. It’s not like potato chips at all. I’d love to be able to stop at just one,” said Wall.
“I do think it’s manageable, especially when you consider what’s going on in some other provinces, but it’s a deficit and I think we’re better off always having a balanced budget or better.”
The document tabled by Finance Minister Kevin Doherty shows the province expects to spend $14.5 billion in the 2016-17 fiscal year, while bringing in $14 billion.
The deficit is largely because revenue from non-renewable resources such as oil, natural gas and potash has plunged nearly $1 billion.
Non-renewable resource revenue is expected to bring in just under $1.5 billion this year — the lowest since 2003-2004.
Doherty said there was little choice but to run a deficit.
“I don’t like debt,” he said. “But at the same time, I’m not prepared to dramatically … reduce spending and … put people out of work when our economy’s going through these challenging times that we think are going to be temporary.”
Doherty said the government needs to look at core services it has to deliver in the years ahead.
“The short answer is that everything’s on the table — and I know that sounds cliche — but I literally mean that on both the revenue side and the expenditure side.”
The review is to include the appointment of a special commissioner to recommend options for fewer health regions and more efficient delivery of services.
Wall said the province has not set a number on how many health regions there could be.
“Maybe the number’s zero. We already have a very large Ministry of Health and so do you need any or do you have one or three,” he said.
There are 12 health regions in Saskatchewan, plus the Athabasca Health Authority in the far north, which is not a regional health authority.
Saskatchewan Union of Nurses President Tracy Zambory said Saskatchewan could look at how the one super-sized health region model has worked in Alberta.
“Let’s look at the opportunities there, but let’s also make sure that we’re paying attention to what didn’t work so that we don’t have to do repeats, so that we when we do something we do it right,” she said.
“Patient safety is what is at the forefront in our minds.”
To save money in this budget, costs under the Children and Seniors Drug Plan are increasing $5 a prescription to $25. The change is expected to affect 66,600 families and 120,000 seniors.
The province is also scrapping a tax credit for families with children participating in cultural, recreational and sports activities. The cut will affect 20,000 families.
Urban parks in Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Prince Albert, Battlefords and Weyburn are losing their funding, about $540,000.
Nancy Styles, president of the Association of Saskatchewan Urban Parks and Conservation Agencies, said those parks are going to be scrambling for money.
“Parks aren’t a frill, I mean sometimes people think they are, but they’re not,” she said. “For the health and welfare of the people who live in these cities, it’s extremely important, and all I can say is I’m appalled that they would choose this thing to cut.”
There’s more money for health and highways.
There’s a $20-million increase to help shorten surgery wait times, and the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency is getting an extra $9.8 million to cover 15 new drugs.
The budget also includes $1.7 billion for government capital projects, with $1 billion of that financed through borrowing.
More than 1,300 kilometres of provincial highways are to be repaired or upgraded.
NDP finance critic Cathy Sproule said the government squandered its savings by draining nearly $2 billion in the province’s rainy-day account.
“We’ve come through the best and sunshiniest times this province has seen in decades, if in fact ever, and yet we’re still looking at these kinds of outrageous kinds of deficits,” said Sproule. “It’s alarming.”
Wall said the province is going to do everything it can to have a balanced budget next year.