The Saskatchewan Government Employees Union has a billboard in the city asking a rather simple question, but one which is likely to be an overriding one when the province next heads to the polls: “MLA Greg Ottenbreit: Where did the money go?”
It is a question Saskatchewan Party MLAs and candidates will have to compellingly answer if they expect to hold onto their current majority in the Legislature.
The Saskatchewan Party first took power in Saskatchewan in 2007, right on the eve of arguably the best economic times in the province’s history. Powered by a then ravenous Chinese economy that punched commodity prices to historic highs in some cases, the province prospered. When crude oil eclipsed $100 a barrel, it pulled other commodities higher, too, and the Saskatchewan economy prospered, which meant good times in terms of provincial government revenues.
But, commodity prices that go up are bound to go down. It is the cyclical nature of the beast.
The Saskatchewan Party lost track of that truism. They spent the increased revenues on programs and projects that required funding in the years ahead, even if revenues slowed.
No one will argue there wasn't a pent-up need for spending in the province. Highways, bridges, hospitals, and schools were showing their age and needed attention. Frankly, the efforts in those areas have barely scratched the surface in terms of need. The infrastructure deficit is massive in Saskatchewan, as it is across the country.
Yorkton residents can certainly attest to that with aging streets pocked with holes in the pavement, sidewalks in need of replacement, and underground water and sewer years beyond its expected life.
Of course, not all the money went to repairs: a new football stadium and a massive bypass project around Regina took millions of dollars, too.
Then the Chinese economy cooled, commodity prices declined, government revenues shrank, and the province was in the red. The good times had not provided taxpayers with a buffer and suddenly it was belt-tightening time in Regina.
Municipalities saw decades-old contracts regarding grants-in-lieu disappear and that meant a major decline in dollars for Yorkton, about enough annually to cover the resurfacing project being undertaken on Broadway Street every year.
Gone too were services such as STC, the bus service which had for decades connected the communities of the province to one another.
So the question of where the money went is a legitimate one.
When there was the gravy of the good times, smart business would have suggested some be put away for the bad times you know are coming. Instead, we saw spending cuts and off loading to deal with the provincial deficit and so the questions will be asked and need to be answered.