Yesterday's Saskatchewan budget didn't hold many surprises and that was probably to be expected. Scott Moe's government has yet to face the electorate and has no real public mandate to make any significant changes. Because of this lack of democratic legitimacy, a cautious, incremental approach, that hewed to the path laid out by former premier Brad Wall was the most obvious choice for a government that fears alienating any significant part of the electorate prior to next year's provincial election.
Most important for Mr. Moe's government is to be seen as competent stewards of the economy, restoring the budget to balance without making the kinds of deep cuts or ill-advised tax changes that disaffected so much of the public in 2017. Yesterday's budget tried to walk that tightrope, with the cuts that were made (childcare, post-secondary scholarships, literacy programs, labour market programs) largely unremarked upon, while partial attempts to restore previous cuts (education) were widely touted. Certainly, Mr. Moe's budget roll-out made every attempt to frame his government as cautious and deliberate, carefully returning the province to fiscal balance.
We can expect this narrative to continue going into the 2020 election year. Mr. Moe will want to portray his government as successfully slaying the deficit dragon, just-so-conveniently timed to be able to unleash a wave of pre-election spending and/or tax cuts designed to seduce the electorate. The irony of this probable narrative is that Mr. Moe will be asking us to reward him for rescuing us from himself. As we at CCPA Saskatchewan have been at pains to emphasize, the austerity imposed by Premiers Wall and Moe over the past three years was not only not necessary, it was counterproductive.
A robust program of stimulus coupled with progressive taxation could have allowed the government to grow its way out of deficit. Instead the government opted for contractionary cost-cutting that fell disproportionately on our province's most vulnerable. Unfortunately, while the former approach would have been more just and fair, it probably wouldn't have respected electoral timetables. So now we will have to endure the spectacle of the authors of austerity congratulating themselves for making the "tough choices" that didn't need to be made in the first place. Perhaps a more honest campaign pitch for Mr. Moe to the Saskatchewan public next year would be "Thanks for cleaning up the mess we made!"
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.