REGINA — The 2016-17 Saskatchewan Budget was not as tough as expected, but Finance Minister Kevin Doherty gave strong hints in his budget speech that “transformational change” is coming in this fiscal year and it will affect all government operations, specifically but not exclusively health, education and social services. Those three government ministries eat up almost 80 per cent of provincial spending.
Health Minister Dustin Duncan said continuing increases in prescription costs and the cost of health services are not sustainable and changes have to happen. The deficit for the fiscal year is estimated at $434.2 million but with a promise of returning to balanced budgets next year.
The government gave itself some wiggle room, guessing where the price for a barrel of oil will go. It’s been hovering around US$50 in the past few weeks and the government based its budget on an average price of $44. Children and senior’s prescriptions will now cost $25, up five dollars, effective June 1, the only fee increase announced. Taxes remain unchanged but support for some family programs have been cut, notably support for low-income families enrolling their children in athletic or arts programs. Doherty said charitable organizations and families have been providing support so the government decided not to continue its support.
Health, education and social services each received small increases, but some health and education sectors spokespersons acknowledged that it will be a difficult year. One positive in the education sector is that the government provided increased funding to cover the costs associated with Syrian refugee children. Questioned about support for other refugee children during a budget briefing for school divisions, Minister Don Morgan said they would be covered in the funding based on enrolment projections for the end of September. Some school divisions have experienced Syrian enrolment increases equivalent to the size of another school but received no additional support.
Saskatchewan universities received no funding increase and may have to look at cutting some programs and increasing tuition fees this fall, according to university officials.
Doherty said transformational change means the government will be looking at everything it does and nothing is off the table but it seems to focus primarily on administration costs. It will question whether efficiencies can be realized in the amalgamation of health districts and school divisions, and are all government programs being delivered in the most cost-efficient manner, and are there some services that can be combined with others to achieve efficiencies? Some of that has already started, according to the minister, as he noted that a $7.5 million savings in the health sector will be spent on improving care in senior care homes.