Saskatchewan finance minister spent $8,000 on private plane to attend commerce lunch

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REGINA — Saskatchewan's finance minister spent nearly $8,000 on a private plane to attend a chamber of commerce lunch days after she tabled a provincial budget containing tax hikes.

Minister Donna Harpauer's travel expense form, posted on the Saskatchewan Party government's website, shows she took a chartered plane with Good Spirit Air Service on March 25, travelling 400 kilometres from Regina to North Battleford.

The flight cost $7,872.60.

A spokesman for Harpauer said she was unavailable for an interview and provided a statement.

"After limiting travel for the last two years because of the pandemic, the minister was able to visit a number of regions across the province," James Parker said in an email.

"For many years, finance ministers have toured the province to discuss the budget. The tours are a good way to connect with people and provide more detailed information on how the provincial budget is working for them and their community."

The luncheon Harpauer attended was hosted by the North Battleford Chamber of Commerce at Porta Bella Restaurant.

Two days earlier, she tabled the 2022-23 budget in the legislature, announcing a tax hike on properties and smokers and a six per cent provincial sales tax on entertainment, gyms, concerts, museums and sporting events.

"This is a flight that very easily could have been replaced by a car ride," said Opposition NDP Leader Carla Beck.

"We see people making changes to their summer plans ... because they can't afford gas, and we see one minister with one flight spending enough that someone would make in four months."

Beck said politicians need to lead by example, especially when they are asking residents to buckle down following a budget that increased the cost of living for people.

"If they don't understand how difficult things are for people — and maybe they don't, if they're only seeing people from the sky on an $8,000 flight — they should be getting out to talk to people," said Beck who noted she's travelled thousands of kilometres by car in recent weeks to meet people across the province.

Premier Scott Moe, Education Minister Dustin Duncan and Rural Health Minister Everett Hindley also charted a private flight from Good Spirit Air Service from Regina to the province's north on Jan. 10. The trip was for a funding announcement and to visit four communities.

That flight cost nearly $16,000, with each of the three expensing $5,301.86. Moe, Duncan and Hindley were unavailable for comment.

"It is standard practice to cost-share and co-ordinate charter flights, where possible, in order to reduce air travel costs," government spokesperson Mathew Glover said in a statement.

He said driving is the primary mode of in-province travel for ministers, but charter flights are used periodically for longer distances or when it impacts other commitments.

Since the government shut down its airline service, Executive Air, in 2017, it has spent about $200,000 to $400,000 annually for cabinet members to travel in and out of the province, Glover said.

He said that's much less than the $4 million spent on Executive Air in 2006-07 by the NDP government at the time.

Since March, the Saskatchewan NDP have been calling on the government to offer financial relief for residents as they deal with the rising cost of fuel, inflation and taxes.

New Democrats have asked the government to temporarily pause the collection of the province's fuel tax like Alberta, and to raise royalty rates on natural resource companies making windfall profits.

Moe has said a decision on such relief hasn't been made because the province has a nearly $500-million deficit it needs to pay down.

He has said if the budget is balanced sooner than projected and there's a surplus from natural resource revenue, his government would look at ways to return dollars to residents in a way that benefits everyone.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 18, 2022.

Mickey Djuric, The Canadian Press

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