Saskatchewan plans to run deficits for two years longer than planned to pay for the ongoing costs of and recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The budget tabled Tuesday by Finance Minister Donna Harpauer for this year forecasts a deficit of $2.6 billion. It projects revenues of $14.5 billion and expenses totalling just over $17 billion.
Harpauer said the deficit is larger than the Saskatchewan Party government initially expected and won’t be eliminated until 2026-27 instead of by 2024-25 as promised in last fall’s election campaign.
“Now is not the time for big tax hikes or deep spending cuts that would jeopardize our COVID-19 response or the strong economic recovery that will follow,” she said at a news conference before the budget was released.
However, the province does plan to introduce a 20 per cent tax on the retail price of all vaping liquids, devices and products, starting Sept. 1, to try to dissuade young people and non-smokers from picking up the habit.
Saskatchewan’s debt load is projected to total nearly $28 billion by next March, including debt from Crown corporations.
Harpauer said that while the return to balance will take longer than expected, “this budget keeps every other promise we made in our election platform.”
Included among those promises is $6 million to hire 100 continuing-care aides to help long-term care residents.
Another $175 million is to be used to give SaskPower customers a one-year, 10 per cent break on their power bills as a way to offer help during the pandemic.
Other support measures include a $285-million decision to send rebate cheques from money sitting in an auto fund to every driver in Saskatchewan this May. The government expects the rebate to be about $285 on average per vehicle.
Finance officials said that while Saskatchewan’s economy has fared better than others during the pandemic, it has no doubt been challenged.
They said the economic recovery that started last summer when the first public-health measures were lifted and businesses reopened was interrupted by a COVID-19 spike during the fall and winter.
The province has earmarked about $6.5 billion to pay for health-care costs over the next year, including $90 million for added resources in the fight against the novel coronavirus.
Some $39 million is to be sent to gaming partners, which lost money because casinos have been closed since last fall under public-health orders.
The budget was presented at the legislature in Regina where a spread of more infectious virus variants has sent more people — particularly younger ones — into the city’s intensive care beds and further pressured hospitals.
Restaurants and bars have been closed to in-person dining in the capital along with indoor event venues.
Cases of the variants have also been found in rising numbers south of Regina in Moose Jaw and Weyburn.
“We feel that we’ve very strongly supported our businesses,” Harpauer said.
The Finance Ministry said Saskatchewan’s real GDP is anticipated to grow 3.4 per cent this fiscal year following an expected 4.2 per cent contraction in 2020.
Officials said that’s why the economic recovery is expected to take longer than first thought.
The government plans to spend millions more from a $2-billion package announced last year for infrastructure maintenance and other projects, which is how it hopes to create jobs and stimulate growth.
Premier Scott Moe said nearly 20,000 jobs have been lost because of the pandemic and that he believes budget spending will bring some of those back, but didn’t say how many.
The Opposition NDP said the budget lacks a specific jobs plan and fails to include more spending for areas hit hardest by the pandemic, including education in grades K-12 and long-term care.
Leader Ryan Meili said hiring 100 continuing-care aides is also a walk-back from the Saskatchewan Party’s campaign promise to hire 300.
The NDP said the Sask. Party’s election platform didn’t mention the new long-term care staff would be hired incrementally.
The Saskatchewan Federation of Labour said in a statement it had hoped the government would provide more support for front-line workers through wage top-ups, rapid testing for all workplaces and proper personal protective equipment.
Over the coming year, Saskatchewan also projects to bring in more revenue from oil and natural gas royalties because of a rise in prices. It forecasts the benchmark West Texas Intermediate to be about US$54 a barrel.
In terms of exports, the province plans to spend an extra $5 million to open four new trade offices on top of ones already existing in China, Singapore, Japan and India.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 6, 2021.
Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press