by Murray Mandryk
So far, so good for new Saskatchewan Party government Premier Scott Moe.
That said, there is a rather large second shoe to drop on April 10 _ the day the 2018-19 provincial budget is presented _ that will be rather difficult for the province’s new premier.
And there are a couple tests for Moe even before that.
One is how well he stacks up against whomever the NDP selects as the Opposition leader for the province.
The other is the new spring sitting of the legislature starting this week _ Moe’s first the best chair in the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly.
But in the month since being selected as the new Sask. Party leader, credit Moe for overseeing what’s been a smooth transition to date.
One of first orders of business was setting precisely the right tone in the wake of the Gerald Stanley not-guilty verdict. That was immediately followed by the awkwardness that always accompanies staffing changes and a new cabinet.
However, Moe used the opportunity to mend fences with former leadership rivals, appointing Ken Cheveldayoff, Gord Wyant and Tina Beaudry-Mellor to appropriate portfolios.
The latter two appointments likely went a long ways towards mending fences with the small yet critical liberal support base both inside and outside the Sask. Party. The same can be said for Moe’s dealings with the family of Colten Boushie after the controversial court process.
And now we see Moe making good on his major leadership promise (at least from an expense perspective) by removing the provincial sales tax (PST) on agriculture, life and health insurance.
The harshest criticism from the NDP Opposition was asking why Moe wasn’t rolling back more of the PST on property taxes, vehicles, restaurant meals and children’s clothing.
This suggest his insurance rollback was a pretty popular move.
It was certainly something that farmers clamoured for, solidifying Moe’s rural base that will be key to another Sask. Party majority in 2020.
But unlike other farm PST exemptions for fertilizers, seed, pesticides and farm machinery and repairs, this move has less of a chance of drawing criticism for subsidizing one particular industry.
Besides, can one really complain about not taxing individual and group life and health insurance premiums for the sick, disabled or accident victims?
And that Moe’s announcement last week made the exemption retroactive to Aug. 1 (the date PST applied to insurance took effective) makes the move that much more popular.
But the problem with doing something popular is that it almost always comes at a cost. After all, there was a distinct reason why an anti-taxation conservative-minded government applied this tax to last year’s budget in the first place.
It all had to do with that unpopular burden of presenting a balanced budget and making choices.
What Moe’s move also means is that the government will have to find an extra $65 million in 2017-18 budget (tax dollars it already collected) and a further
$120 million in 2018-19 and each and every year that we do not charge the tax.
“We know we need to find an additional $120 million moving forward to address the reinstatement of PST,” said Finance Minister Donna Harpauer.
Moe vowed his Sask. Party government is still on track for a balanced budget within three years.
But key to Moe’s PST re-instatement promise was more cut backs and firings (also, unpopular measures in both rural and urban Saskatchewan in the 2017-18 budget).
Sure, oil has recovered a bit. But is Saskatchewan really in a position to forego any more government revenue _ especially, given that the Sask. Party government already had to revisit several cutbacks in the last budget?
While the first month may have been relatively problem-free for Moe, the bigger problems are clearly ahead.