Swift Current MLA Everett Hindley feels the provincial government’s goal to deliver a budget in response to the COVID-19 pandemic was successfully achieved during the spring session of the Saskatchewan legislative assembly.
He spoke to the Prairie Post on July 6 about the three-week session of the provincial legislature, which took place from June 15 to July 3. This session had to be carried out differently than before due to the need for COVID-19 physical distancing measures, and there were only 10 government members and five opposition members at any time in the assembly.
“It's a significant budget, given the circumstances here,” he said. “It includes a three-year, $7.5 billion capital plan to create some jobs here in the province to help prepare Saskatchewan as we try to get through COVID. Every province, every state, every jurisdiction in the world is facing some economic challenges.”
This budget reflects the challenges faced by the government to deal with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and to provide support for an economic recovery.
“It's difficult for us, because we came through two or three difficult years of trying to get the budget back to balance and we would have had a balanced budget last year and this coming year as well as in the future years,” he said. “We're now sitting with a $2.4 billion pandemic deficit, not a structural deficit. It's totally related to what's happening with respect to COVID-19, but it's a significant budget. … We do feel that there is a role for the provincial government to play in making sure that there are significant projects going ahead that will employ people and help us get through this COVID time that we're all dealing with.”
The government used the budget that was supposed to be tabled in March as the foundation for the budget submission during this spring session. Hindley felt it made sense to build on what was already there instead of starting from scratch to create a new pandemic budget.
“There was a lot of work put into the budget that would have been tabled in March, because that stuff doesn't happen overnight,” he said. “This takes months and frankly years of planning in some cases for some of these significant projects. … I just don't know if that's the right approach to take to throw them out and start from scratch when we need to get people back to work and show that there's some confidence from the provincial government in this economy recovering.”
He therefore disagrees with the opposition’s criticism of the budget as incomplete and inadequate. He emphasized the uncertainties that the government faced in preparing budget details in the midst of a global pandemic.
“It's a little frustrating,” he said. “I don't know what the opposition will do differently. This is a global pandemic that's affecting all corners of the world right now and it's very difficult to project what's going to happen. … I think it will be irresponsible frankly to go out and say here is the year two projection for revenue, year three, year four. I don't know how you can possibly do that. We're trying to project it as best as we can for the current budget year. We think that's the responsible way to do this.”
He also disagreed with the opposition’s claim that the government is planning budget cuts and Crown sell-offs in future years to balance the budget.
“This is kind of the typical playbook of the NDP, to say that the government isn't telling you what's coming next and what's around the corner,” he noted. “The fact of the matter is we've said and the finance minister said it and the premier said that our plan to get through this is to keep investing into major infrastructure projects around the province. Our plan is to get the economy going and that's how we intend to get back to balance by having people back at work and chipping away at this one year at a time and frankly day by day. That's how his is going to happen. So there is no intention here to raise taxes or to cut programs and services.”
The provincial budget includes a record $5.8 billion allocation for health care. This amount includes more than $100 million in additional funding to contain the spread of COVID-19. There is an allocation of $2.6 billion for prekindergarten to Grade 12 education, early learning and child care, libraries and literacy.
Municipal revenue sharing has increased by 11 per cent in this budget to $278 million. The budget includes $150 million for the new Municipal Economic Enhancement Program (MEEP), which is an initiative to support the economic recovery through the provision of funding for shovel-ready municipal infrastructure projects. The City of Swift Current will receive $2,386,467 from the MEEP initiative.
The provincial government will provide $25.9 million in stimulus funding for school maintenance projects in 15 communities. The Chinook School Division will receive $1.1 million for various upgrades at the Swift Current Comprehensive High School.
The provincial budget includes $715 million for highway projects, and Hindley noted that roads in southwest Saskatchewan will benefit from this allocation. There will be improvements to about 24 kilometres of Highway No. 4, to 22 kilometres of the Trans-Canada Highway west of the city and to about 22 kilometres of Highway No. 32.
He referred to three project announcements that will promote economic diversification in the province and that will also have potential benefits for southwest Saskatchewan. The largest helium purification facility in Canada will be constructed by North American Helium Inc. near Battle Creek, which is southwest of Maple Creek. A new hydrogen project, which will be the first one in the world, will be developed in the Kerrobert area.
Hindley also felt the provincial government’s announcement of a $4 billion irrigation project at Lake Diefenbaker a day before the conclusion of the legislative session will have a significant impact on the farm and ranch sector.
“That irrigation project off Lake Diefenbaker is going to have a large impact on our area for years to come,” he said. “That's something longer term, and I think that's perhaps even more significant or just as significant as some of these very specific infrastructure announcements that are made on an annual basis.”
Hindley was elected as MLA for Swift Current during a by-election in March 2018. The upcoming provincial election will be his first opportunity to be part of a province-wide election as a candidate, but this one will be different due to the COVID-19 public health restrictions.
“There's going to be some changes with respect to how campaigning is going to look,” he said. “Will candidates be allowed to be on the doorsteps and frankly do people want to see them on the doorsteps? So much has changed and I think that's what's unique about this, but I'm looking forward to it. We've got an excited, big group of local volunteers that are ready to go, no matter what the election looks like, and we're looking forward to it in anticipation.”