Mandryk: Record Sask. budget deficit may not create much of a ripple


Some of the highly apparent contradictions we will see in Tuesday’s budget might work out in the Sask. Party’s favour.

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When Finance Donna Harpauer presents her 2021-22 Saskatchewan budget Tuesday, we will see a deficit number that once would have triggered alarm bells.

It will exceed the then-record $2.4-billion 2020-21 budget deficit presented last year. The “good” news, say Saskatchewan Party government sources, is that it will be shy of $3 billion.

Of course, consecutive deficit budgets were one of the many things that drove the Sask. Party’s ancient ancestors, the Saskatchewan Progressive Conservatives, into extinction. That we will see Tuesday a second-consecutive record deficit that will soar public debt to record heights would seemingly contradict the Saskatchewan Party’s self-reported fiscally responsible brand.

And it would seem unhelpful to Premier Scott Moe’s “we’re-out-of-the-woods” messaging on COVID-19.

“We are not in the recovery stage yet,” said one source explaining why government is avoiding its usual, more-optimistic messaging.


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Record deficits and debt? Abandonment of its own fiscal prudence mantra? Messages forewarning that Saskatchewan might not yet be anywhere close to post-pandemic recovery? One might think Tuesday’s budget is a political disaster-in-the-making.

Well, maybe not. If anything, some of the highly apparent contradictions we will see in Tuesday’s budget might work out in the Sask. Party’s favour.

It seemed the government recognized early on the in the budget process that this was going to a very different one … one in which traditional ways of thinking were thrown out the window.

From the initial call for departmental spending estimates through cabinet treasury board and final cabinet approval, the reccurring message was that COVID-19 was having a profound effect on every aspect of this process — not just in anticipated places like big increases in health and education spending, but even in ministries like highways where pandemic protocols will add to costs.

Combined with the economic realities of COVID-19 that saw Saskatchewan lose some 25,000 jobs last year, it evidently became rather obvious to this government that now is hardly the time to lean into its narrative that it has been fiscally prudent.

“This will look like a ‘spendy’ budget,” said one source. Obviously, this isn’t totally surprising, given that the Sask. Party has a fond affection for spending — especially capital spending that we’ll see a lot of Tuesday in the name of economic stimulus. (What we won’t see is much more in costly, direct COVID-19 support for shuttered businesses or others affected.)


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That said, you might think fear of deficits and debt might cause the Sask. Party to think twice about at least of few of its more costly October election platforms like its SaskPower electrical bill subsidies. Nope. The government obviously feels it has little to lose.

There will be other factors driving Saskatchewan’s 2021-22 budget deficit including unfunded pension liabilities and the reality that the flow of federal support dollars for COVID-19 will be less this coming fiscal year.

But there’s really a three-fold reason why a big deficit Tuesday will hardly create a ripple:

— We have been conditioned to worry less about rising deficits and debt cost — especially during this pandemic;

— The biggest criticism from the NDP is that Sask. Party isn’t spending enough to create jobs and deal with COVID-19, and;

— The NDP is promoting even bigger deficits which would lead to more debt, anyway.

While the deficit will be stunning in the light of day Tuesday, the Sask. Party platform did predict a $2.2-billion deficit in 2020-21, $1.7 billion in this is coming budget year, $1 billion in 2022-23, $464 million on 2023-24 and slight $43-million surplus in 2024-25.

The government has previously sated it won’t balance the budget by 2024-25 and Tuesday will be a further admission that it will badly miss all those targets, beginning with budget day’s record deficit and ending with no balanced budget this term.

But while the NDP and Ryan Meili have called this a lie, the Opposition campaigned on even larger budget deficits. It’s tough to criticize Moe for doing the same thing — especially, when you are also arguing Moe isn’t spending enough.

A record deficit Tuesday? Will anyone even notice?

Mandryk is the political columnist for the Regina Leader-Post and Saskatoon StarPhoenix.


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