Saskatchewan needs more people, better schools, better highways and tax cuts as it continues to grow, its Premier says, even if that means taking decades to pay off the provincial debt.
Premier Brad Wall outlined a new agenda, the 65-page Saskatchewan Plan for Growth, during a state of the province address to business leaders in Saskatoon Tuesday. The plan's goals – some more achievable than others – include adding 120,000 residents over the next eight years, exporting more oil, potash and food, expanding a highway to serve its uranium mines, boosting high-school graduation rates, welcoming more immigrants and cutting corporate taxes.
Mr. Wall cast the plan as the next stage in his province's precarious era of prosperity.
"We've got to be very careful about any presumptions, or too many assumptions, about how long it will last. That's why we have this growth plan now," the Premier told The Globe and Mail. Base prices for oil, potash and food are rising, he said, lessening the likelihood of a collapse. "Obviously, a resource economy is going to cycle. But we've got a couple things going for us."
The plan will guide the final three years of the overwhelming mandate that voters handed Mr. Wall's right-leaning Saskatchewan Party last year, but opponents argue many of the ideas are recycled.
"A document like this distracts everybody, [and] I think his popularity will stay up there as long as there's sort of a myth of a booming economy," NDP acting leader John Nilson said. In reality, he said, Saskatchewan is struggling to maintain its balanced budget (the only one in Canada) and has no plan to reduce debt quickly.
The growth plan commits to balanced budgets and to paying off $400-million of the provincial debt over the next five years. At that rate, the $3.8-billion debt would not be retired until 2060 – barring surpluses, half of which must go toward the debt under Saskatchewan law. Despite that lengthy timeline, Mr. Wall announced Tuesday the creation of a Saskatchewan Heritage Initiative to consider priorities for spending in debt-free years.
The centrepiece of his plan for growth is $2.5-billion in infrastructure spending over the next three years, and it also projects a population of 1.2 million by 2020, only modestly more than the current rate of growth suggests.
Mr. Wall hopes to add 12,600 affordable housing units, but also plans to sell off all the province's single-family subsidized homes and use the money for multi-unit public housing. His plan allocates $150-million to create an agency called SaskBuilds, which will pursue public-private infrastructure partnerships, or P3s. Mr. Wall's government has tried that before and failed, the NDP argued.
The plan also includes several goals for education, including leading Canada in overall high-school graduation rates by 2020. "If the future is really about education, we ought to act like it," the Premier told Tuesday's crowd. Saskatchewan will also boost funding for adult education, create scholarships and boost aboriginal education and employment. (First nations unemployment hit 21.3 per cent last month – five times the provincial average.)
Mr. Wall also renewed a pledge on health-care wait times, including a promise to eliminate emergency room waits. "Some of the [goals] are a little bit bolder, there might be implications to it. But I would rather have them and strive for them than not [have them] at all," he acknowledged.
He also will cut corporate business taxes to 10 per cent, joining British Columbia and Alberta with Canada's lowest rate. The speech, not surprisingly, went over well with the business crowd.
"We liked pretty much all of it," said Steve McLellan, CEO of the Saskatchewan Chamber of Commerce, although he added that he thinks population growth estimates are too conservative and the economy needs more people. "We need that to be able to bring the resources out of the ground. It's as simple as that."