COVID-19 supports highlighted as Sask. rolls out scaled-back budget
REGINA -- The Saskatchewan government focused on economic and health supports for the COVID-19 pandemic in its scaled-back budget released on Wednesday afternoon.
This year, the province tabled spending estimates without any revenue forecasts.
"This is an unprecedented and challenging time in our province, our country and the world," Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said. "We are all feeling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and our government's first priority is the safety and health of Saskatchewan people."
The province tabled a balanced budget in 2019. Harpauer says this year, the province has a "strong cash position" of $1.3 billion. She added the government is prepared to take on a deficit if necessary.
"The province is in a strong fiscal position to provide further resources as required to address the health and safety of Saskatchewan people through this crisis," Harpauer said. The province also said it will invest $2.7 billion in Crown corporations and executive government to ensure "economic stimulus."
Some provincial governments have chosen to delay their whole budget this year.
"We considered doing the same, but have decided to proceed with a budget estimate so that vital spending in healthcare and education, and in other areas, can proceed," Harpauer said.
As part of its plan to support Saskatchewan residents through the COVID-19 pandemic, the province says it will give $3.74 billion to the Saskatchewan Health Authority to fund doctors, nurses and other health care professionals working on the front lines.
"It is vital that our healthcare funding flows and that our infrastructure investment is in place to help Saskatchewan's economy," Harpauer said.
The finance minister said the government still doesn't know how much COVID-19 will cost the province.
"The expense to government right now is only the test," she said. "We don't know if that's where it will stay. Should there be more expenses within the healthcare system itself, then we'll have the cash to increase the budget."
The estimates also show a $400,000 increase in funding for Vaccine and Infectious Diseases Organization to continue work on a new vaccine manufacturing facility. The province says there is a research team working with others across Canada to develop a coronavirus vaccine.
Saskatchewan NDP Opposition leader Ryan Meili said the province's financial plan is on a "completely different planet" from what his party would like to see.
"We're not dealing with the same circumstances anymore," he said. "It never made sense to introduce the budget, it makes even less sense to release half of budget with no revenue description."
Meili said the NDP wants to see an injection of money for people affected by the novel coronavirus.
"It is a very serious time and requires a response that is proportionate to the state of the situation that is adequate to address the challenges we're facing," he said.
He's also calling on the government to have a proactive post-pandemic economic stimulus plan in place.
"That's work that needs to start today," Meili said.
The government estimates it will spend $14.15 billion on ministries and agencies. This is an increase of 3.1 per cent over the 2019-20 budget. The province says the increase represents investment in health care, education, social services and infrastructure.
Harpauer said there is an expectation of losses, but it's not yet known how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact Saskatchewan's economy.
"Our surplus was thin last year," she said. "I didn't ever anticipate this and I don't think anyone did."
The $1.3 billion in cash flow is from a fund put into place by Harpauer two years ago to maintain a liquidity level in the province. She says there's no defined disaster fund, and the province, at this point, remains above the liquidity level laid out two years ago.
Harpauer said she is committed to the spending numbers outlined on Wednesday.
"We're giving that security to the Saskatchewan people that we're not raising taxes for this," she said.
- Ministry of Health: $5.77 billion, including $434.5 million for mental health supports, $20 million to address surgical wait times, $196.4 million for the Saskatchewan Cancer Agency and $10.3 million for care beds at Royal University Hospital and care homes in Regina and Emerald Park
- Ministry of Education: $2.57 billion, including $1.94 billion for operational funding for the province's school divisions
- Ministry of Social Services: $1.29 billion, including increased funding for third-party service providers working with people with disabilities, at-risk children, youth and families
- Capital spending: New joint-use elementary school in Harbour Landing, joint-use of consolidation of St. Peter, St. Michael and Imperial elementary schools in Regina; St. Frances Elementary School, consolidation of Princess Alexandra, King George and Pleasant Hill elementary schools in Saskatoon; new consolidated elementary and high school in Carrot River
- Ministry of Advanced Education: $739 million for post-secondary institutions and maintaining the Graduate Retention Program
- Ministry of Government Relations: $278 million in Municipal Revenue Sharing, $85 million for the Saskatchewan Public Health Agency, funding for the Gang Violence Reduction Strategy to address gun and gang activity in the province, PST rebate of up to 42 per cent on new house contracts up to $350,000, excluding land purchases, for new homes purchased after March 31, 2020