Saturday November 01, 2014

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Provincial budget draws lots of reaction

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Estevan MLA Doreen Eagles

Estevan MLA Doreen Eagles is heralding the contents of this year's provincial budget, even though it doesn't include a CT scan machine for St. Joseph's Hospital in Estevan.

Most notably, she said it's a balanced budget, without any tax increases.

"Spending was controlled, there was an investment in infrastructure and an investment in people," Eagles told Lifestyles.

The budget is balanced even though the government has moved from having two sets of books – one for the general revenue fund (GRF) and the other for Crown corporations – to having a summary focus. The auditor general has been pushing for the change for some time.

"It's very transparent and it's very clear … and this first year, it's very confusing, because everything is included in the summary, where it used to be you had the GRF and then the summaries that took in the Crowns," said Eagles.

The most notable item in the budget for the Estevan constituency is pre-construction work on twinning of Highways 6 and 39 from Regina to Estevan, and pre-construction work on double lanes for Highway 39 from Estevan to the junction with Highway 18.

"People have been pushing for that for many, many, many years, and especially since 2007, when we've had a lot of growth in the province, with an increase in the number of people, which means increased traffic," she said.

Pre-construction work would likely entail engineering and other work associated with the project.

Other highlights include additional money for municipalities through the municipal operating grant; funding for schools and hospitals; more training of nurses and doctors; additional spots for day cares; funding for seniors and people with disabilities; and more money for agriculture.

As for the CT scan, Eagles said it might not be a budget item, since the regional health committee has offered to purchase the machine and initially provide the operating costs.

"We have to make sure that there is enough money so that funding is in place when the government actually does take over the operation of it," said Eagles.

Eagles said she'll continue to lobby for the CT scan at St. Joseph's.

Marge Young, who has co-chaired the Time to Twin Highways 39 and 6 Committee, welcomed the pre-construction announcement.

"(Highways Minister) Don McMorris has announced that they are doing the beginning … stages in design and planning," said Young. "They are, I've been told, working on environmental studies. They are purchasing more land, because they don't have enough land with the right-of-way that they have right now."

Young said the committee is pleased that the government recognizes Highways 39 and 6 as a top priority.

The South East Cornerstone Public School Division noted that the budget includes a funding increase of 1/5 of a per cent from the previous year. The funding allocation is based on projected enrolments for 2014-15; enrolment is expected to be stable, with a 1 1/2 full-time equivalent increase from September 2013.

The funding increase will be needed for wages and general inflation.

Preventative maintenance and renewal funding has increased 27.7 per cent, and will be used for roof replacements and improvements to heating and ventilation systems.

The Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce lauded the budget, saying that it deals with demands for increased expenditures due to growth and the cost of living, while managing overall expectations across the board.

"First and foremost, it is balanced," said CEO Steve McLellan. "We are also pleased with the move to summary income statements, which will provide a greater degree of transparency and accountability."

But the provincial chamber was disappointed with the lack of action on the promised two per cent reduction in the corporate income tax rate, which the chamber believes would have provided cash flow to business, and stimulated the continued growth of the economy.

The Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) said they were pleased with support for cities, towns and villages.

"Saskatchewan's villages, towns and cities are experiencing unprecedented growth," said Weyburn Mayor and SUMA president Debra Button. "Urban governments across the province are on the frontline, providing the services and infrastructure we need to attract business and new residents. The government's investment in our communities will go a long way to helping us meet the demands of growth."

SUMA is concerned that there is no new allocation for infrastructure funding due to the lack of details surrounding the new Building Canada Fund. SUMA has been reassured by the provincial government that once the program is finalized by the federal government, there will be provincial resources available.

But not all are happy with the budget. The Saskatchewan NDP claims that despite having over 50 per cent more revenue coming into government's coffers, the budget cuts health care, offers not a single new dollar to address seniors' care, and heaps financial strain on municipalities, schools and universities.

Six out of seven budget requirements laid out by the NDP were not been met.

"The message this budget sends everyday families is to brace themselves – the things they count on and really need improvements to are going to get even worse," said NDP deputy leader and finance critic Trent Wotherspoon.

"Saskatchewan people are working harder than ever right now. They deserve a budget that uses the strong economy to benefit them – now and in the long-term. They deserve for the strong economy to translate into better hospitals, smaller classrooms and a better cost of living.

"Instead, the government invests in pet projects, leaving just crumbs for real families and the things that matter."

Wotherspoon said Saskatchewan families have raised concerns over the high cost of living, while the basics they count on, like education, health care and seniors care, are deteriorating.

NDP called on the government to end contracts that are making Saskatchewan a cash-cow for consultants, including one contract with an American lean health care consultant that cost Saskatchewan taxpayers more than $40 million.

The budget re-announces $3.7 million already allocated to address urgent needs in seniors care homes, and, according to the NDP, doesn't allocate a single new dollar to address conditions that they believe are largely caused by a lack of staff and the government's removal of minimum standards.

The NDP also reiterated its call for action to address the seniors care crisis, including minimum standards and enough staff to properly care for seniors living in care homes.

Other concerns the NDP has with the budget are:

*It allocated millions more to pay for the software required to plough ahead with an old-fashioned and outdated standardized testing regime. The NDP had called for funding for standardized testing to be redirected to teaching, and more one-on-one help for students, including increasing the number of educational assistants.

*The budget does nothing to address the rising student-to-teacher ratio in many schools; *It includes a plan to construct new schools through private-public partnerships;

*There aren't any measures to address the rising cost of living.

"People tell us the government hasn't been listening to them – this budget really shows the government is absolutely not listening, and doesn't understand what families are dealing with today," said Wotherspoon.

The NDP is pleased to see the shift to the summary budget statements, which it had been calling for. With some reorganization of the budget, the NDP will continue to track the implementation of the new system of reporting to ensure Saskatchewan people have honest books they can trust.

The Green Party of Saskatchewan (GPS) offered mixed reviews for the budget. Leader Victor Lau is pleased the government remains committed to twinning Highways 39 and 6.

The Greens also applauded the $28 million decrease in expenditures, and the move to summary budgets.

But Lau said the GPS is alarmed that the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources is taking a hit of about $12-million.

"The environment budget should be growing at a time when the number of environment-related issues across the province is growing," he said.

Lau demanded that the government reconsider the environment spending cut.
Lau is also concerned that other than earmarking money for 12 Habitat for Humanity homes, that the budget does nothing to address the province's affordable housing shortage, or the rising cost of living across the province.

The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour (SFL) critiqued the budget, saying it does not adequately reflect the interests of Saskatchewan people. The SFL said the government did not address important issues like growing income inequality, inadequate royalty and corporate tax rates, retirement insecurity, privatization, and underfunded post-secondary institutions and Kindergarten to Grade 12 schools.

"Many working people are naturally optimistic prior to the unveiling of a provincial budget, because it represents an important opportunity," said Saskatchewan Federation of Labour president Larry Hubich. "A government could use the provincial budget as a tool to address fundamental challenges within our economy, to establish a more fair economy."

In particular, the SFL wishes that the government would have addresses the lean organizational structure that it has implemented for health care. But rather than reconsidering its stance on lean, the government is still committed to the program.


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