The Saskatchewan NDP labelled the 2019-20 provincial budget "off-balance," but the government's budget commitments may actually have the opposition searching for level footing.
Following Wednesday's budget, NDP Leader Ryan Meili took aim at the province's growing debt. It will rise by $1.8 billion and is projected to reach $21.7 billion in total by next year.
Former Premier Brad Wall told CBC in Dec. 2008, "whenever I leave here from this wonderful office or the people ask me to leave from this wonderful office, I would like to walk away from a debt-free Saskatchewan."
That did not happen. Later in Wall's tenure, his government ran deficit budgets, peaking at a $1.2 billion deficit in 2016.
Jim Farney, head of politics and international studies at the University of Regina, said debt may not be the issue it once was, as when Wall's Saskatchewan Party government started to pay it down early in its mandate.
"People, as individuals, borrow more debt than ever so they're really comfortable with it. When governments are in a fairly solid place it's not as scary as it was 20 years ago," Farney said.
Stakeholders like union representatives, big city mayors and advocates for mental health did not criticize the government In the immediate aftermath of the budget as they have in some past years. Many used the 2017-18 budget as a barometer, with this year's budget looking boring by comparison.
Farney said the lack of criticism was noticable.
"Meili had a harder row to hoe this budget, one that everybody is sort of okay with," Farney said.
"I think the NDP is in a hard spot. It has to make a decision. Does it worry about debt? They were also referencing, 'we don't like the PST being higher that's $800 a household a year but we also want more services.' It's really hard to have all three of those at the same time."
Budget addresses some NDP issues
Whether intentionally or not, the 2019-20 budget hit on several issues the NDP has asked the government to address.
So far during this spring sitting of the legislature, the NDP has raised changing the potash royalty structure and making a temporary mental health assessment unit in Saskatoon permanent.
While the province is still pressing pause on a royalty review, it made changes to the Potash Production Tax which will generate an extra $117 million in government revenue.
It also boasts its "largest commitment" to mental health and addictions — $402 million, an increase of $30 million — which includes making that temporary assessment unit permanent.
Farney said that while the NDP has raised the potash tax review and mental health issues, they are not new.
"If you look back think back to the Sask. Party leadership race [mental health] was an issue they talked about then are they probably happy to take an issue away from the opposition," he said.
"I think these are conversations we've been having for a while. It's not simply stealing ideas."
The NDP has also asked about a new hospital in Prince Albert. Lo and behold, the government announced $2.5 million for an initial design of the Victoria Hospital in Wednesday's budget.
No 'thunderbolt' in 2020-21 budget
Looking ahead into the political crystal ball, Farney said to expect a larger surplus than projected and modest promises with an October 2020 election looming.
"They will continue to do what they've done, which is to under-promise and over-deliver. I'd expect to see a bit more money than they thought they would have come next spring, which conveniently, is right in the lead up to that election eason."
"I don't think there'll be any one big thunderbolt. They will continue to kind of spread it across the sectors that we spend the most on social services, education and health," Farney said.