The narrative the Saskatchewan government would like you to believe is that during the COVID-19 crisis, it has been the sole, steady hand on the tiller of the economy—making the sober, sensible decisions both for the public’s health and the public’s purse.
Indeed, based on statements by our Premier, one could be forgiven for thinking the federal government has contributed nothing more substantial than unwanted criticism to our provincial COVID-19 response.
So many in our province might be surprised to discover the true extent of the federal government’s COVID-19 funding commitments to Saskatchewan, particularly in comparison to what our own provincial government has (and has not) spent. Picking up the Tab: A complete accounting of federal and provincial COVID-19 measures 2020 by CCPA Senior Economist David Macdonald offers a complete breakdown of who has been funding what in our province.
Most COVID-19 spending in Saskatchewan is on the fed’s dime
The vast majority of COVID-19-related spending in Saskatchewan has been exclusively from the federal government. Of all COVID-19-related spending in the province, 90% has been federal money, while 10% has been provincial.
Obviously, a significant amount of this federal money has been for income supports to workers and businesses. Almost half the province’s workforce—241,650 applicants—have relied on CERB at some point during the crisis, while Saskatchewan businesses have received almost $1 billion in Canada Emergency Wage Subsidies (CEWS) and will likely receive $1.6 billion before the program wraps up.
Beyond income supports, the federal government is also funding the vast majority of spending for COVID-19-related health spending (98%), funding to support municipal operating and transit budgets (100%) and COVID-19 adaptation in schools and child care centres in the province (92%).
What this demonstrates is that, despite Mr. Moe’s constant attacks on Ottawa over carbon pricing and equalization, federalism is working.
As David Macdonald writes: “Federal power, in a lot of cases, is precisely its spending power; the ability to provide funding for programs that, particularly for the smaller provinces, simply wouldn’t be possible without it.”
Room for more leadership from the Saskatchewan government
Certainly the Saskatchewan government, by itself, does not have the fiscal capacity to fund the type of income supports required to weather this pandemic. That being said, the province is not without means, nor responsibility, to spend provincial dollars in other COVID-19-affected areas.
It is here that we see the real failure of leadership by the current provincial government. Not only has it refused to spend adequate provincial dollars to address provincial needs, but it has also failed to spend or access federal dollars designated to address those needs.
The provincial government has left millions of federal dollars on the table, both by refusing to spend monies already delivered and by failing to fully access available federal dollars.
It has left unspent $18.6 million for the safe restart of childcare, $13 million to help train early childhood workers and $42 million for job training for workers in hard hit sectors.
Saskatchewan has also not fully accessed federal money in several other funds, leaving $49.4 million for the essential workers wage-top-up on the table, as well as $31 million from the Safe Long-Term Care fund and $11.5 million for the purchase of hotels and motels for rapid housing.
Why the government has decided to forgo these funds is unclear. Certainly it cannot be for lack of need. As we currently experience the highest levels of infection and transmission in the country, the government cannot pretend to have the luxury of not accessing and spending every available dollar to protect its residents and mitigate the harm from the pandemic.
However, if the province has been miserly with federal money, it has been equally stingy with its own, particularly in comparison to other provinces that have made substantial COVID-19-related investments in key areas.
For instance, in regards to funding for health care (COVID-19 testing, PPE, health and long-term care) Saskatchewan is only spending $30 a person after federal transfers are accounted for. In comparison, Ontario and Quebec are spending over $150 a person, while Manitoba is spending $252 a person.
The province is spending substantial amounts of its own money on new infrastructure (the Saskatchewan government is currently sitting on $1.4 billion in unallocated infrastructure funds; this is money already in the budget, but not yet allocated to infrastructure projects). But while such money may be sorely needed as a stimulus to our badly damaged economy, it does nothing to address the out of control damage of the COVID-19 virus right now.
Failure to spend looks like callous recklessness
As it has throughout this crisis, the Saskatchewan government appears more concerned with mitigating the economic impacts of the virus than fighting the virus itself, with results that speak for themselves.
Lastly, throughout the pandemic, the Saskatchewan government has been quick to tout the state of its finances, in spite of the crisis, reporting lower deficits than anticipated and continuing to commit to a balanced budget by the 2024 election.
The irony is, that for all the ire that Mr. Moe directs at Prime Minister Trudeau, it may very well be the largesse of the federal government, coupled with the underspending of transferred dollars, that has allowed Saskatchewan to post such rosy fiscal numbers.
While in any other situation such news might be greeted by some as evidence of fiscal responsibility, during the worst public health crisis in 100 years, failure to spend and access every available dollar to protect us from the ravages of this pandemic looks a lot less like financial caution and a lot more like callous recklessness.
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. Unless otherwise indicated, all data cited from David Macdonald’s Picking up the Tab: A complete accounting of federal and provincial COVID-19 measures 2020