From the cuts to the Saskatchewan Transportation Company (STC), to slashing public libraries, to hits to post-secondary institutions, to the sudden rethink of the tax roles of local governments, figuring out the policy rationale behind the Wall government’s latest budget is no easy task.
Is it meant to be pro-business? Anti-urban? Is it trying to appeal to a voter base that would help keep the Saskatchewan Party in office? For those trying to analyze the budget, the answer could very well be “Darned if I know!” In politics, having a reputation of being muddled never pays off, whether amongst other elected peers such as premiers, or amongst those who can enter a voter’s booth. Here, the budget’s negatives can also be measured in the loss of an elected official’s social capital.
Unfortunately for Premier Brad Wall, the losses might not be limited to the court of public opinion. The city of Saskatoon is considering an injunction against the budget, which will reduce the amount of grants the province pays to municipalities in lieu of taxes each year. Losing a portion of those grants means a potential budget shortfall for Saskatoon of $11.4 million dollars. Like any legal position, Saskatoon’s view is not necessarily guaranteed to succeed in the courts, but the publicity around the issues at play might be well worth the effort. The narrative from the municipalities will be clear, the province’s less so.
Wall could point to external factors that have made his fiscal choices more constrained. Think oil prices. Think potash markets. Maybe even think population shifts. But given that Saskatchewan’s deficit is so huge, and that some commodity slumps are fairly recent, that can lead an economist to wonder whether money was spent poorly during better times. The more that speculation grows, the weaker Wall’s position could become.
The motives behind Wall’s recent spat with Alberta Premier Rachel Notley are equally mysterious. How to interpret his public courting of a Calgary-based company he would like to see relocate to Saskatchewan, in the face of regional trade rules? Again, Wall’s behaviour seems wobbly and unpredictable.
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Sometimes when we hear the word ‘budget’, we think it’s about money. But economics is often best understood as being about value. It’s about what is important to us, what we want to protect and at what maximum cost. Right now, Wall has us confused about what he values, and his vision of Saskatchewan. That’s a politically dangerous place to be.
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