RMs welcome highway improvement, new school funding

Billed as balanced and steady, last week’s Saskatchewan budget was also characterized by some as boring.

There was no hike in the education portion of property tax, despite a trial balloon launched by premier Brad Wall earlier this year. In fact, there were no tax increases at all.

Spending for 2014-15 is projected at $14 billion, or .2 percent lower than last year. Revenues are predicted to come in at $14.07 billion, down .7 percent. It leaves the province with a thin surplus of $71 million.

Krawetz said the government considered all revenue options, but tax increases are always a last resort.

Increasing mill rates across all property classes, including agriculture, by one mill would have earned the government an extra $110 million.

“That’s substantial,” he said. “We decided that it was more appropriate to keep the mill rate at the current level.”

Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities president David Marit said he was happy with the decision.

“We had had some discussions with ministers on that,” he said.

“Nothing ever came of it.”

He said Wall raised the issue with reporters at the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association convention but not at SARM earlier this month.

“That gave us and our board a pretty good comfort feeling,” Marit said.

The budget maintained $25.5 million in funding from the highways ministry for the Municipal Roads for the Economy program and $1 million from agriculture for irrigation bridges on municipal roads.

Rural municipalities will receive revenue sharing of $72.6 million this year, down $2.1 million from last year. Urban revenue sharing will be $165.2 million, down $4.8 million.

The figures are lower this year because municipalities receive one full point of provincial sales tax collected, and less was collected last year.

Municipalities will also benefit from infrastructure programs.

The highways budget has set aside $405.2 million for capital projects, plus $250.6 million for repairs and upgrades.

New capital projects include twinning Highway 16 from Saskatoon to Clavet and pre-construction work on the East Regina bypass and the future passing lanes on Highway 7 between Delisle and Rosetown.

Two pilot projects will upgrade thin membrane surface highways to primary weight super grids. The roads will be gravel but built with a properly engineered base to withstand traffic.

Highways minister Don McMorris told the SARM convention that he was surprised and pleased by the number of municipalities interested in going this route.

“It isn’t the ideal situation,” he said, but 5,000 kilometres of thin membrane surface highway at $1 million or more per km to fix would require $5 billion.

Pre-construction work also continues on future twinning of Highway 39 from Estevan to Bienfait, Highway 6 and 39 from Regina to Estevan, and Highway 7 from Saskatoon to Delisle.

Meanwhile, the ethanol fuel grant program continues to be phased out.

The original grant of 15 cents per litre for ethanol used and produced in the province was reduced to 10 cents last budget and will drop to five cents this year, to save $8 million.

Regulations are being developed to support small Saskatchewan ethanol producers that produce less than 25 million litres per year. Blenders will be required to buy 30 percent of their ethanol from small producers.

The health budget takes up the biggest chunk of Saskatchewan expenditures.

The ministry received a three percent spending increase to nearly $5 billion. Rural initiatives include the addition of three more collaborative emergency care centres. The new Moose Jaw hospital will be completed and Prince Albert’s Victoria Hospital has been identified as the next to be renewed.

The incentive program to recruit rural family physicians was boosted by $2.6 million to total $5.9 million. The program also supports a pool of 20 rural doctors.

Overall funding for education rose 3.1 percent for a total operating budget of $1.82 billion.

New schools are planned for Gravelbourg and Langenburg.

This was the first summary budget for Saskatchewan, which means a budget with one set of books that includes spending for both executive council and the crown corporations. The provincial auditor had recommended the province go this route.

Krawetz said the budget includes all government entities.

“It includes ministries, treasury board organizations, such as school boards, regional health authorities and SIAST,” he said.

“It also includes commercial crowns, like SaskPower and SaskTel, and insurance organizations, like the Workers’ Compensation Board and the Auto Fund.”

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