Budget 2021 Holds No Surprises

·10 min read

The 2021-22 budget for Saskatchewan was delivered on Tuesday April 6th by the Honourable Donna Harpauer, Minister of Finance and contained few if any surprises. Many of the initiatives included in the Budget are ones that have been previously announced by the government since last fall’s election and are not “new” initiatives but rather they are now officially part of the budget. The projected deficit is a hefty $2.6 billion, but even that is no surprise. What would have been a surprise, would have been a revelation on how long it will take to pay off the accumulated debt our province has racked up once the budget is once again balanced.

The new budget is touted as one that will protect, build and grow Saskatchewan. Some of the key factors that aim to fulfill the protection part of that promise includes a $1.5 billion investment in COVID-19 supports to “help protect lives and livelihoods” but there is no one line in the budget specifically called COVID-19 Supports, rather they are spread throughout different portfolios and require very detailed dedicated research to track and it is difficult to distinguish what is actual separate spending and what is just an aggregate amount from many areas in the budget. There is $90 million of the $261 million increase in the budget for the Ministry of Health that is dedicated to the COVID-19 response which includes the costs associated with the vaccination rollout, additional laboratory capacity, as well as contact tracing measures, expanded testing and assessment sites, purchase of personal protective equipment, but the rest includes supports to other parts of the economy from Veteran’s Service Clubs to Mental Health Initiatives.

The budget also includes an increase of $23.4 million in spending for mental health and addictions programs under the umbrella of the Ministry of Health along with over $3.2 million which is being invested in the Gang Violence Reduction Strategy which provides addictions programming in provincial correctional facilities along with intervention services for individuals wanting to leave gangs. Mental Health and Addictions, Seniors and Rural and Remote Health Minister Everett Hindley said, "As we continue to see these concerns growing across our nation, our government remains committed to providing as much support to as many youth and adults as possible." The services which will receive some of the new $7.2 million targeted investments include establishment of up to three provincial locations for a youth-focused initiative that integrates mental health and addictions, physical health and community and social services; extending the pilot with the RCMP that partners registered nurses with RCMP members to support mental health needs in rural areas; addressing higher demand for mental health services as a result of COVID-19 impacts; adding a Police and Crisis Team (PACT) in Estevan; enhancing support for HealthIM, an innovative technology tool that supports communication among hospitals and mental health emergency response. As well addiction and harm reduction services will benefit through the establishing and equipping of three innovative buses that will be based out of Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert to provide mobile harm reduction services and an expansion of the Take Home Naloxone Program to many more locations across the province with the aim of making naloxone kits available in more pharmacies and co-locating naloxone kits with AED machines.

For the seniors of the province, Senior’s Income Plan will see an injection of $3.5 million to increase benefits to low-income seniors, however the maximum payments will only increase by $30 per month. The province will also increase funding to the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and Saskatchewan Deaf and Hard of Hearing Services Inc. by $246,000 and also $6.7 million to third-party service providers. Included in the government’s commitment to build the province are future long-term care facilities in Grenfell, La Ronge, Watson, Estevan and Regina, Urgent Care Centres in Saskatoon and Regina, and the continuation of work on Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital. As well a $48.8 million funding increase for enhanced programing and increased utilization of services for people with disabilities. The Ministry of Social Services sees their budget increased by $54.5 million which includes an increase of $8.2 million for new residential care spaces to support children and youth with developmental and complex behavioral needs through private treatment and group homes; a $1.6 million increase to implement Parent Resources for Information, Development and Education (PRIDE), Levels of Pay Phase II - a specialized training program that supports foster families to care for children with more intensive needs; a $3.0 million increase to support more extended family caregivers a $1.4 million increase for services aimed at preventing children from coming into the care of the ministry, such as in-home family supports; and an additional $500,000 investment to Sanctum 1.5 to support high risk expectant mothers with enhanced outreach and coordination of services.

There is good news for Veteran service clubs that have been impacted by COVID-19 an increase to the Saskatchewan Veteran Service Club Support Program from $100,00 to $1.5 million will give eligible clubs access to support for infrastructure upgrades, programs, events and activities, and COVID-19 related facility updates. Also, provincial highways will see improvements as part of the commitment to build the province, and several busy single lane highways will benefit from the addition of passing lanes at various points along their length and for the first time the Short-line Rail industry will have some government support through a $530,000 Short-line Rail Infrastructure Program. And not to be overlooked small town Saskatchewan will continue to be able to access grant money through the Community Rink Affordability Grant to assist communities with the costs associated with operating curling and skating rinks. The program provides $2,500 per ice surface to eligible registrants and can be directed toward rink operating costs, COVID-19 related costs or minor capital improvements. The government expects that more than 600 ice surfaces in more than 350 communities will be eligible to receive this support.

Under the “Grow” Saskatchewan part of the Budget release, the government seems to be relying mainly on the rebates provided by SaskPower and the SGI Auto Fund which they claim will make life more affordable by putting more money back into resident’s pockets. For the average Saskatchewan family these rebates amount to little or nothing and to be brutally truthful the Auto Fund rebate will for many families go to getting caught up on bills as $285 does very little when working for minimum wage. The “Build” promise comes through with many supports and funding for capital structures, improvements and initiatives, but it seems almost as if they expect the promised rebates to encourage the residents of the province to open up their wallets and spend more money. While small businesses in the province will benefit this year from a moratorium on the provincial Small Business Tax, the hard-hit businesses in the hospitality industry have little else to look forward to and let’s face it, many businesses in this industry employ those minimum wage workers. Ten per cent of a monthly power bill that is on average less than $150 per month is only $15.

The government will be introducing some new Bills in relation to the budget and reviving an old one. The Active Families Benefit Act will be revived which gave tax benefits to families with children who were enrolled in sports and cultural activities. The benefit will once again provide eligible families with $150 tax credit per child. The Fuel Tax Amendment Act is in response to the increased number of electric vehicles that are on the roads. Since electric cars don’t use fuel the government has no way of making drivers of electric vehicles contribute to the construction and maintenance of provincial roads and highways, therefore this legislation would implement an annual road use fee of $150/vehicle for electric vehicles. The Police (Serious Incident Response Team) Amendment Act would allow for the formation of the Serious Incident Response Team (SIRT) and to grant the SIRT jurisdiction to investigate allegations of police malfeasance on behalf of the Public Complaints Commission. The Provincial Sales Tax Amendment Act is to enact initiatives that will ensure out-of-province e-commerce platforms collect and remit provincial sales tax (PST) which will increase provincial revenue to support the Budget. This Bill will also exempt vapour products from PST in exchange for a new Vapour Products Tax. The Vapour Products Tax Act will establish a new tax (VPT) which will replace the PST which is currently applied to all vapour liquids, products and devices. Legislation will set the tax rate, applicable products, as well as licensing, collection and remittance requirements for retail businesses. In conjunction the Tobacco Tax Amendment Act will create a new category for Heat-not-Burn tobacco sticks under The Tobacco Tax Act and will levy a tax on these products. The Summary Offences Procedures Amendment Act will enact initiatives to allow individuals charged with certain provincial offences to resolve their charges without attending Court through an on-line provincial offences system which should free up valuable Court time.

Lastly the Saskatchewan Technology Start-up Incentive Amendment Act has the sole purpose of extending the length of the Saskatchewan Technology Start-up Incentive (STSI) program for five years and allowing the Minister to cap annual tax credit amounts. The STSI program is geared to attract and promote innovation and research in the province. “Saskatchewan is home to a world-class research cluster and leading-edge technology companies, and this budget will continue to support their valuable work,” Innovation Saskatchewan Minister Jeremy Harrison said. “We will continue working to attract investment to this sector and advance development in our key strengths, such as agriculture and ag-tech, to drive the province's economic recovery and return to growth.” The program offers a non-refundable 45 per cent tax credit to Saskatchewan-based investors who invest in eligible technology start-up businesses. It also continues support of the province's large scientific infrastructure, such as the Canadian Light Source and the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, and funding for research projects through the Innovation and Science Fund, Agtech Growth Fund and the Saskatchewan Advantage Innovation Fund. Innovation Saskatchewan will also continue providing strong support to the University of Saskatchewan's Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization (VIDO) who will receive more than $4 million in operational funding. Construction of the small-scale vaccine manufacturing facility is underway and expected to be completed in late 2021. The facility will be able to produce millions of doses of vaccines, helping to build Canada's domestic vaccine production capacity.

The 2021-22 Budget also provides an increase of roughly $5.7 million for targeted program funding primarily for First Nations and Metis organizations or individuals. This increase is reflected in a $1.7 million increase in Advanced Education funding for initiatives and institutions and $1.3 million increase for First Nations On-reserve policing and enhanced policing. There is also an increase in the Budget for funding for the Indigenous-owned contractor’s part in the Accelerated Site Closure Program, which is an initiative of the federal government to boost employment and at the same time reclaim abandoned wells and mining sites.

All in all for the average person there is little to get excited about in this budget. There are incentives for business and technology, there are promises of road and highway improvements and the tax credits that can be used to reduce one’s taxes, but little else. This is a budget for businesses and not the general populace. The average working-class citizen will continue to struggle to make ends meet as the price of fuel increases and in hidden ways the cost of every other item in our economy does as well. The working person will continue to carry the economy on their backs and in their wallets for the foreseeable future.

Carol Baldwin, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Wakaw Recorder