Sask. government calls think-tank's COVID-19 spending report 'disappointing,' disputes findings

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The Saskatchewan government is disputing some numbers found in a new report on COVID-19 spending released by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA), calling it "disappointing."

The report, which was released Tuesday, says the province has been "sitting on" a $1.4-billion contingency fund, mostly in "unallocated infrastructure funds." The province said in a statement Tuesday that's "incorrect." It said Saskatchewan has $160 million left in its COVID-19 contingency fund and another $394.8 million to be doled out in the 2021-22 provincial budget.

"Characterizing unallocated infrastructure funding as 'contingency funds' is entirely inaccurate and goes against well-established public-sector accounting guidelines," the province said in an emailed statement.

The government also took issue with a section of the report about Saskatchewan not using an available $31 million from the federal Safe Long-Term Care Fund. The report said Saskatchewan was one of six provinces not to do so. The province said it believes that no provinces have accessed this money.

"The fund has been a point of contention at recent First Ministers' Meetings over the federal government's encroachment in provincial jurisdiction by specifically earmarking federal funds to health care, an area of provincial jurisdiction," the province said.

"It is the position of several provinces including Saskatchewan that federal health funding would more appropriately be directed through the Canada Health Transfer, which has been subject to chronic underfunding by subsequent federal governments."

Saskatchewan NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon issued a statement in repsonse to the report Wednesday, accusing the provincial government of "failing to spend the $260 million in the provincial contingency fund" that was approved in the last budget.

"While the Sask. Party has sat on their hands and failed to deploy crucial resources in our schools, hospitals, and care homes, we've seen case numbers skyrocket and dozens die needlessly," Wotherspoon said. "The Sask. Party needs to act now to protect lives and livelihoods."

Meanwhile, NDP leader Ryan Meili is now asking to see the books so his opposition can thoroughly inspect the numbers.

"Come clean about where every single federal dollar has gone and commit to making sure the federal dollars go out to protect and support Saskatchewan people in this difficult time," Meili said Tuesday afternoon.

Sask. chipping in 5 per cent toward low wage essential worker top-up

One finding the Saskatchewan government is not disputing is its contribution to the federal low wage essential worker top-up.

The CCPA report says the top-up is supposed to be cost-shared: 75 per cent federal and 25 per cent provincial. It says Saskatchewan has only contributed five per cent. The province confirmed that figure.

"$56 million is the total of the provincial/federal Temporary Wage Supplement. Under the agreement reached the federal component is $53.2 million and the cost to Saskatchewan is expected to be $2.8 million," the province said in an email, noting 75 per cent of that money has already been handed out to workers.

According to the report, Saskatchewan still has millions of federal dollars to spend on helping workers. That includes $49.4 million in wage top-ups for essential workers and another $42 million expected to go toward job training for workers in sectors hit hard by the pandemic.

Lori Johb, president of the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour, said that extra cash could be life changing for people, noting it could help many pay for transit or child care, and would stimulate the economy.

"We know that an injection of a wage top-up — every cent of that would be spent in the community. That would go right back into the economy in Saskatchewan," she said. "I'm not sure why our government isn't seeing it that way as well."

Feds contributing more for COVID-19 health care, education: report

Other highlights in the CCPA report include Saskatchewan spending $9,000 per person overall on COVID-19 supports, with 90 per cent of that money coming from the federal government. In comparison, Manitoba is spending $9,400 per person and Alberta is spending $11,200.

In terms of health care, the research institute found $1,200 is allocated per person in Saskatchewan, with 98 per cent of that being federal money.

Education-wise, the CCPA reported that the provincial government is contributing eight per cent of the $120 per person set aside for COVID-19 adaptation in schools and childcare centres in Saskatchewan.

"When it comes to government spending, this has largely been a federal show. There is room to do more, particularly at the provincial level, to mitigate the pandemic's impacts," said David Macdonald, the report's author and CCPA senior economist, in a news release.

"It's clear that many provinces are leaving money on the table during a time of unprecedented crisis."