In this day and age when so much of the Saskatchewan economy is being driven by the private sector, it’s easy to forget the value of the province’s Crown corporations.
After all, with increased retail sales, record export trade, booming oil and potash revenue and even a strong agricultural sector where producers no longer have to sell their wheat through a government agency, it’s easy to assume government ownership is passé.
At best, the Crown corporations aren’t top-of-mind among Saskatchewan voters who are betting on the on-going success or our resource sector. At worst, the Crowns are seen by some as a rather antiquate notion of the previous NDP government, all too eager to jack up rates to pay high public sector salaries.
Some may even wonder if the Crowns even still serve a purpose or whether we would be better off selling the lot of them.
Heck, there will soon be two full-service private liquor stores in both Regina and Saskatoon — yet another example of Saskatchewan people departing from the age-old notion here that government ownership is better.
Well, whether government truly needs to be in every business — including liquor retail — is a reasonable question. That one of the new “private” liquor storeowners in Saskatoon will be a Co-op store says much about how our thinking is changing.
But when it comes to the more basic question of the value of Crown Corporations, no one should understand their worth more than Saskatchewan Party MLAs now in government.
Nor should Sask. Party MLAs who now represent all of Saskatchewan’s rural voters underestimate the value the service the Crowns are providing their constituents.
The value of the Crowns to the government — and also Saskatchewan taxpayers — was best expressed in the 2012 Crown Investment Corp. (CIC) annual report that showed $479 million in overall profits that will translate into $364 million in dividends.
Included in that total were profits of $159 million, $130 million, $107 million, $82 million and $52 million for SaskPower, SaskTel, SaskEnergy, SGI and the Saskatchewan Liquor and Gaming Authority, respectively. Even Information Services Corp. — the land titles Crown that the government is trying to sell — made a tidy $21-million profit.
While not necessarily a record year, 2012 may very well have been the most profitable year for the Crowns that did not involve the sale of assets.
For a Sask. Party government that recently got another tongue lashing from the Provincial auditor for keeping two sets of books, it’s these Crown profits that are now balancing the general revenue fund (GRF). After all, this is a government that did not set aside one nickel it its March GRF budget for flooding.
But the value of the Crowns goes well beyond bailing out politicians when it comes to the balanced sheet. Their greatest value is providing services to Saskatchewan people — especially rural people — that they might not otherwise get.
We have frequently explored this topic when discussing the perennial money-losing Saskatchewan Transportation Company. But it may be a surprise to some to know that even profitable Crowns are providing services that their private sector competition won’t provide.
Take SaskTel that competes with private land, cellular, Internet and television signal providers.
Private suppliers do not provide 4G high-speed Internet outside the cities or any Internet services to First Nations or communities of less than 150 people, SaskTel as a publicly owned enterprise, however, does do this.
And, of course, its cell phone service simply covers a far wider rural area than any private cell provider.
Admittedly, the Crowns are not perfect, as anyone who has dealt with them will attest.
But both the Crown corporations’ profits and their wide mandate for service make them less out-of-date in Saskatchewan than some may think.
Murray Mandryk has been covering provincial politics for over 22 years.