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Budget Debate (28 March 2007)

From Hansard - 28 March 2007

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Mr. Hart: — Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Madam Deputy Speaker, I’m certainly pleased to be able to enter into the debate on this budget. It’s a budget that this government hails as a go-forward budget for the province of Saskatchewan. Yet there are many, many shortcomings in this budget as my colleagues have pointed out and also members of the public have recognized, Madam Deputy Speaker.

There’s a number of issues, Madam Deputy Speaker, that I would like to cover. But perhaps the first thing that I would like to do is certainly welcome our newest member of this legislature, the member from Martensville. Certainly we are, on this side of the House, very pleased to have her as a member of the opposition caucus and certainly very proud of the excellent work that she has done so far. And also I should also recognize once again our young member from Weyburn-Big Muddy. And certainly these young people certainly have a long and I am sure a very successful future ahead of them in this legislature and other careers that they may want to pursue some time later, much later on in their young lives.

Madam Deputy Speaker, as the member representing Last Mountain-Touchwood, I have said many times before . . . and I will just very briefly repeat some of my comments that I have made over the years about the makeup of Last Mountain-Touchwood and the rural nature of the constituency of Last Mountain-Touchwood.

In my constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker, we don’t have any large urban centres. We don’t even have any medium-sized urban centres. Our largest communities are communities that are of a population of about 800 people or less. So we are certainly a rural constituency, and we have a number of rural issues that we are faced with, along with those other issues that all citizens across the province whether they are urban or rural face.

And I would like to speak about at least a few of the issues and particularly the rural issues that the people of Last Mountain-Touchwood are faced with. And one of the issues that is of great concern, as it is to many rural residents in the province of Saskatchewan, is the condition of our highways — and particularly some of our secondary highways that service communities and provide a valuable service to businesses and individuals that live along and near these highways — and the lack of attention and the lack of a plan that this government has had and the constant deterioration that we are seeing and particularly at this time of the year, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I would invite members opposite to drive north of Regina and drive down that section of Highway 22 that last summer this government saw fit to turn back to gravel. I would invite them to travel down that portion of highway today when we are receiving rain and wet snow. But you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, the people of the area are forced to travel on that highway.

And what’s even more important, Madam Deputy Speaker, because this government has seen fit to close a number of rural schools and close some of the . . . The high school in Earl Grey is an example. We have more and more students travelling longer distance in school buses. And particularly on days like today that certainly is not an option that the residents feel is a viable option, and they have great concern about the safety of their children, Madam Deputy Speaker, because along that section of highway we also have a large number of grain trucks delivering grain to a high throughput elevator. And the citizens of that area have been raising the issue of the deterioration of Highway 22 for many years, as long as I’ve been elected, and nothing has been done other than turning it back to gravel.

Then also I would invite them to take a drive down Highway 310 between Balcarres and Ituna and see the deterioration of that highway — another busy highway that serves many rural residents and residents of the communities, people living in the communities along the highway. And what has this government said to those area residents? They said, we’re not going to fix your highway unless you are prepared to help with the cost of repairing and upgrading the highway. They’ve made that same sort of statement to the people in the Southey, Earl Grey, Bulyea area. Those people on that area along Highway 22 have rejected the government’s blackmail.

The people along Highway 310 are so desperate to see improvements made to their highway that finally — after much thought and much discussion and out of desperation — they’ve agreed to the government’s blackmail and said, okay we will very, very reluctantly help as best we can with the repair of Highway 310, to the point where the municipality that has the lowest tax base but yet has the greatest number of kilometres of Highway 310 through their municipality has levied an additional 1 mill per year for five years which will be dedicated to the repair of 310. They already are having difficulty maintaining their own municipal roads. But they’ve asked, the council of that RM [rural municipality] has asked their citizens to pay more taxes on top of all the other taxes that they are paying to help fix the highway. It’s a shameful legacy that this government is leaving in rural Saskatchewan, Madam Deputy Speaker.

And on top of this, to add insult to injury, Madam Deputy Speaker, what did we hear from this government and from this Premier just very recently in the last number of weeks? They have finally admitted something that we have been saying for many years: that this government has no plan as far as repair and upgrading of our highways. The Premier admitted. He says, in the last 15 years we didn’t have a plan but we’ve got one now. And they made their announcement of additional funding to repair highways. But it’s too little and too late, Madam Deputy Speaker.

We’ve allowed the condition of our highways to deteriorate to the point where it reminds me of the old oil filter commercial where it goes something like this: where the individual’s holding up a new filter and he says, either pay me now a small amount or pay me a lot later if you don’t provide proper maintenance. And that’s the situation that we’ve got ourselves into now, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Did we hear anything about a long-term sustainable plan to address the way we fund the K to 12 [kindergarten to grade 12] education system in this budget? We heard nothing, Madam Deputy Speaker. This government, prior to the last election, the NDP said, oh we’ve got a plan, and we’ll be able to deal with the Boughen report, and we’ll be able to address this matter. The Premier went to the SARM [Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities] convention several years in a row and firmly said that the status quo was not on, and yet nothing really has changed.

Certainly in the last couple of years when they have some windfall revenues from oil and gas, they put in place a tax credit. But that’s not a fundamental change, Madam Deputy Speaker, in the way we fund the K to 12 system. It’s a system that can be as easily removed as it has been implemented. And we’ve seen this in the past. Back in 2002-2003, I believe the years were, we had a small tax rebate program for education tax on agricultural property of some $25 million per year. We had that program in effect for two years. Right after the 2003 election, that program was abolished.

And until very recently when this government is going into election years, and they have as I said these windfall revenues, they’ve been able to put a similar program in place which can very easily be renewed. What we need to do, and what this government said they would do, is meet with the coalition of organizations such as SARM and SUMA [Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association] and the school boards association and the association of resort communities and the Saskatchewan association of realtors — and there may be one of two other ones who have formed the coalition — and who are willing to sit down with this government and find a long-term solution as to how we fund the K to 12 system.

We hear nothing from that process, Madam Deputy Speaker. There’s no leadership from this government on this issue because it’s a tough issue, and they would prefer not to deal with it. And there has been, as far as I’m aware, no meetings or anything taking place. They’re just hoping that this issue will go away. Well it’s not going to go away. Property taxes and the education portion of property tax is an issue for all property owners across this province, whether they be rural or urban. And that is something that we heard on the doorsteps in Martensville. And that is something that I’m sure these people are hearing, but they are refusing to deal with it, Madam Deputy Speaker.

What did we hear on agriculture in this budget, Madam Deputy Speaker? Well frankly I think what I’d like to do is quote one of the leaders in the agricultural community. This government said well they’re going to fully fund CAIS [Canadian agricultural income stabilization]. Well this is nothing new. Other years they played the silly little games, and they put a certain amount of money into the agriculture budget. And then they would later on in the year say, okay yes, we’re fully funding CAIS.

This year, in an election year, Madam Deputy Speaker, they thought well we’re going to take it one step further. We’re going to say right upfront that we’re fully funding CAIS, in a year, Madam Deputy Speaker, where I predict that the payouts under CAIS will be considerably less than they have been in other years due to the increases in commodity prices. So in the year when probably CAIS payments will be the lowest they’ve been in the last two or three years this government says, well okay we’ll finally commit right upfront to funding CAIS.

But what do some of the agricultural leaders in this province say, Madam Deputy Speaker? Well I’m quoting now from an APAS [Agricultural Producers Association of Saskatchewan] news release on the budget. And this is the president of APAS, Mr. Ken McBride, and he says:

“I have to admit that we are a little disappointed. This was a big-spending budget, but not in agriculture . . .”

And, Madam Deputy Speaker, I hear the Finance member, the minister from Regina South, chirping about some of my comments, Madam Deputy Speaker. And I must say that his conduct today is certainly much improved over his conduct the other night in the Economy Committee, Madam Deputy Speaker. But he still hasn’t learned his lesson.

And what I would say to that member is . . . I have two words for that member, Madam Deputy Speaker. Now those two words are Bill Hutchinson. Bill Hutchinson is the Sask Party candidate that will be representing Regina South after this next election, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the people of that constituency will have a member that was working on their behalf, Madam Deputy Speaker. And he will work with people. And he will work with other members of this legislature and, Madam Deputy Speaker, and they will be very well served, Madam Deputy Speaker.

But that member certainly hasn’t learned his lesson and he continues to chirp. It must be spring, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the crows are back, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker, another issue that I would like to touch upon is daycare in our rural communities. In this budget we have a commitment. It’s right in some of the information provided with the budget, Madam Deputy Speaker. It says — they’re talking about young people — and it says, “. . . 500 hundred new licensed child care spaces.” Well the question that the people in rural Saskatchewan and in particularly one of the communities in my constituency, the community of Strasbourg, is are any of those new spaces going to be going to communities in rural Saskatchewan and in particularly the community of Strasbourg? I wonder if the minister can answer those questions.

Because there’s a group of community-minded individuals in that community who have taken it upon themselves, because they’ve seen the need and they were being led by the mayor of the community, and they started a daycare on their own. The citizens of Strasbourg have done as much as they possibly can. There’s been space donated. People are working for little or no salary, and they are struggling to try and maintain this service. They have asked for a bit of a helping hand from this government and to date they have heard nothing, Madam Deputy Speaker. And the question is, will some of that new funding go to spaces in rural Saskatchewan? I’ll be very interested to hear their answer, Madam Deputy Speaker. And we’ll certainly be . . . The minister is chirping yes. So will it be going to the community of Strasbourg, Madam Deputy Speaker?

I should relate a conversation that I recently had with a young couple that have moved back from Alberta to Strasbourg. They’re both professionals. They grew up in Alberta. They said we saw some opportunities. And we have a young family and we often thought it’d be great to raise a young family in rural Saskatchewan. So we had an opportunity and moved to Strasbourg.

You know what, one of their major concerns is daycare because they are both working. They want to have quality care for their children, Madam Deputy Speaker. And in fact they feel so strongly that if these services aren’t being provided that they may have to reconsider their decision to stay. And they said if they’re going to live in the city, they doubt whether it’d be a city here in Saskatchewan. They may have to go back. And that would be a real shame, Madam Deputy Speaker.

And so if we’re going to spend money on advertising to bring young people back to our province, we better make sure that we have the services that are required.

And this is not, a daycare is not only an issue in Strasbourg. It’s an issue in numerous other communities in rural Saskatchewan. I’ve heard, you know, working mothers express great concern about the lack of proper care for their children in a number of communities in my constituency, Madam Deputy Speaker. And we need to see if this government, the government that touts itself as being the people who look after the working families of this province, let’s see if they’re going to actually do something, or is this another case of all talk and very little action, Madam Deputy Speaker? I hope the latter is . . . that that’s not the case, but I’m fearful that it is, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I heard the Minister of the Environment make a few comments about some of the things that his department is going to be doing on green strategy and those sorts of things. He’s talking about, I believe it is $7.5 million on the green initiatives, and it says in the Estimates book that this is money that will be used in support of the government-wide approach to improve the environmental management under the green strategy.

Well the green strategy, Madam Deputy Speaker, is something that this government has talked about for, I believe it’s three or four years. They started the process and they talked about a green and prosperous economy. And to date what have we seen? We’ve seen a few small, little announcements here and there with promises being made, promises being made to develop a multi-material stewardship program which I understand is on the rails or perhaps has been derailed or perhaps has been discarded.

We’ve seen a couple of other little announcements here and there, but we’ve never seen the overall plan, a plan, an overall policy or framework that the people of this province can see and understand as to where this government is going as far their green initiatives. And to date, whenever I would ask the minister in estimates as to when are we going to see the overall plan, he says soon. Well soon was, I believe, six months ago, twelve months ago and eighteen months ago, and then we got the same answers. And today he says well we’ll be seeing it fairly soon. Well that’s an answer that we’ve seen for quite some time. All talk and no action, Madam Deputy Speaker.

And so what are some of the environmental groups that are watchdogs, as far as governments and their programs, what are they saying about this government? Well the Suzuki Foundation in their last report said that this government has no plan to address to climate change; that Saskatchewan has the fastest increase in greenhouse gas emissions; and on a per capita basis, we are at the top of the pack as far as greenhouse gas emissions.

And we have $7.5 million for some small, little handouts that this government, this minister wants to use as his little election slush fund, and that’s what’s going to address this greenhouse problem and climate change problem. This government that claims to be the protector of the environment, the protector of working men and women, just another example, Madam Deputy Speaker, of all talk and very little action. And once again, as some of the environmentalists say, this is nothing but greenwash, Madam Deputy Speaker. And I believe that. That’s all it is. It’s just greenwash, Madam Deputy Speaker.

So in conclusion, I would like to say that I certainly cannot support this budget, a budget that presents a false impression of the soundness of our financial picture in this province. So I will not be supporting the motion but I certainly will be supporting the amendment.

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