REGINA – Retiring Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall’s austerity budget from last spring has not been popular with voters and whoever takes over from him could still have to deal with the fallout.
The budget cut library and education funding, as well as grants to municipalities and money for funeral services for poor people. It raised the provincial sales tax and added it to things that had been exempt such as children’s clothing and restaurant meals.
The measures were part of the Saskatchewan Party government’s effort to tackle a $1.3-billion deficit.
Shawn Davidson, president of the Saskatchewan School Boards Association, says the impact on students will be great if there are deeper cuts and he hopes whoever becomes the next premier recognizes that.
“Education certainly did its part in the world of austerity for the province in helping to balance the budget, and there were a lot of tough decisions that came with that,” said Davidson.
“But we’re at a point now where we need to see our funding be sustainable moving forward, so that we can do the best things for our kids.
“This idea there’s still a bunch of fat to cut in education is just simply false.”
Ken Rasmussen, a political scientist with the University of Regina, said Wall’s successor may face divisions in caucus between those who were not keen on the budget and those who are very much pro-austerity.
Rasmussen suggested Wall was able to keep a lid on any kind of unrest, but that might not last.
“That kind of division that clearly exists in cabinet is going to become more visible,” he said. “Whoever is the new leader is going to have a harder time tamping that down.”
The budget is “already a bit of a shambles and whatever plan they had has sort of unravelled through piecemeal changes.”
On Thursday, the government backtracked on a planned 10 per cent funding cut to community-based organizations such as mobile crisis services, detox facilities and youth centres.
Health Minister Jim Reiter — who is considering whether to enter the race to lead the Saskatchewan Party and, ultimately, become premier — said the province decided after a review that it wasn’t appropriate to take money away from the groups.
Public outcry had already led the government to reverse plans to cut the library and funeral funding.
Tina Beaudry-Mellor, who has stepped down as social services minister to enter the leadership race, said there is a budget challenge.
“Given that human services portions of our ministries have three-quarters of the budget, there’s no question that we need to look in those areas for efficiencies when we want to balance the budget. But there might be better ways of going about it than we currently are,” she said.
“For example, I’m not certain that having the same level of savings across every ministry is perhaps the wisest approach.”
Finance Minister Kevin Doherty, also considering a leadership bid, said he’ll continue to defend the budget, even though it might put him at a disadvantage.
“Will I wear it? Probably more so than other people. That’s probably a fair statement. But again, this is a government decision and the government should all stand behind it.”
Parks Minister Ken Cheveldayoff and Justice Minister Gord Wyant are also deciding whether to run.
Rasmussen said he can’t see any new leader of the Saskatchewan Party abandoning austerity.
It would be a risky political move, he said, but whoever becomes premier could lessen some of the impact with a “reset” in the next budget.
“I imagine that we’ll see a kinder, gentler austerity budget.”