It is a wild, wet and windy day in southern Saskatchewan. I didn’t delay Monday Morning Commentary because of the weather or work but because I thought it appropriate to comment on our much-heralded Premier’s comments on Saskatchewan’s future growth.
For months now, we have had all of the Premier’s high-priced image creators dropping hints that the Premier has been beavering away creating a new economic tempt plate to manage Saskatchewan’s continued growth. As some of you may remember, Mr. Wall came out with a document while he was Leader of the Opposition talking about how Saskatchewan would use our bountiful resources to grow the province. We all knew that Saskatchewan was blessed with many resources – some of which the previous PC government had started to make use of for the benefit of Saskatchewan’s citizens.
As everyone knows the NDP government basically sat on their duffs and did nothing except to collect their paycheques. Mr. Wall correctly read the tea leaves and has been living off the world-wide demand for resources ever since. The trick as always is how do you best manage the increased revenue streams, the increased population growth and the increased demand on services and infrastructure that citizens rightly demand when they see government coffers being filled with resource windfall profits. Yesterday in Saskatoon, Mr. Wall’s much-anticipated announcement was made. It was well delivered as usual. All of the right adjectives were used in the right places and a lot of very large numbers were thrown out with very few near term objectives being achievable. Mr. Wall is very adept at picking closing dates that are just beyond the next provincial election so that he can always manage the people’s expectations to his own advantage.
The announcement of large infrastructure spending is very welcome news. I suspect, however, when you take the existing highway’s budget, the PST transfer to municipalities and other grants that are currently tied to projects like the transportation hub west of Regina and the various disaster programs that are ongoing because of the flooding, the infrastructure monies announced will be similar over three budgets. What is new is the $150 million draw down on the so-called “rainy day fund” for public-private infrastructure announcements. This includes the creation of another new government agency where I am sure some more friends of Mr. Wall will take up residence. These people may come from the old P3 Secretariat which didn’t work or Enterprise Saskatchewan which didn’t work or from friends that haven’t had their piece of the pie yet.
The immediate reaction from municipal leaders especially in Saskatoon and Regina who are facing re-election is that this money would be good for Saskatoon’s north bridge and Regina’s traffic bypass. I don’t believe for a minute that either project will qualify unless the provincial government is prepared to let private sector entities use these projects as toll roads otherwise there is no benefit for the private sector in either project except as a participant in the normal low bidder tendering process.
This model will probably work to create new lower cost housing projects and certainly the government has shown with the Amicus deal in Saskatoon that they will use it in the health care sector. How the taxpayer will benefit has yet to be determined. I wonder if some of this money will find its way into the new downtown renewal project in Regina i.e. the new stadium and CP Rail lands.
If I were a civic or municipal leader today, I would really wonder if this new provincial government entity will start telling them how the 1% PST rebate to municipalities will be spent in the future. I think what municipalities – both rural and urban – were looking for was an assurance from senior government down the road, there would be more money for infrastructure that was not dictated by provincial or federal politicians because really that is where the real impact of a growing economy and population growth really hits the hardest.
There was no mention in Mr. Wall’s vision for value-added industry and processing. The thousands of high-paid construction jobs in the potash expansion drive will soon becoming to an end. The increased capacity that will be available means that there will be few jobs in that industry other than those necessary to run the expanded mines. How are we going to keep those skilled workers and what are they going to be working on? Are we going to have further processing of petrochemicals? Are we going to have an expanded fertilizer industry because Yara is our only participant right now? Are we going to add further agricultural processing and diversification? And is Mr. Wall going to bring the province’s debt down by simply continuing to load up the crown corporations with debt as he has done over the past three budgets?
As taxpayers, we still all pay either through our personal taxes, our corporate taxes or through our utilities. Personally, I would have liked to have seen Mr. Wall announce that crown debt would be frozen at current levels and that government would commit to learning to live within its means and therefore lower taxes. They should have made this commitment before hiring Mr. McKinnon to look after a heritage fund which might not exist for another eight years according to Mr. Wall’s own calculations.
The hype and the delivery were certainly there. Mr. Wall has some of the best handlers and message crafters in the business. It’s too bad the content was lacking. We are basically where we were on Monday – same old – same old.
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These issues must be debated for “The Right Reasons”.