Thursday, March 22, 2012

Budget Day

Source: Government of Saskatchewan - Budget Key Facts and Figures

While there is some stuff to talk about federally, namely Speaker Andrew Scheer's potential conflict of interest with regards to the Robocall, we're going to stick provincially for today.

It was budget day here in Saskatchewan, and I'm still looking through the budget documents (I'm no accountant, so some of stuff does go over my area of expertise from time to time), but I will do what I can.

Firstly, let's just talk about the budget itself. For the most part, surprisingly, I don't think it was as bad as it could have been. However, the document is far from perfect. For the most part, it continues the SK Party's practice of throwing small amounts of cash at a major problem without fully addressing the problems themselves.

For example, we have the drug plan. On one hand, they're increasing coverage for people with diabetes in order to help them get long term insulin, as well as increasing the insulin pump program for young people to cover those from 17 to 25 years old.

On the other hand, they've also decreased funding for the Seniors and Children Prescription Drug Plan, meaning that those who previously had certain prescription drugs maxed out at $15 a prescription, to $20 a prescription. While that may not sound like a major increase, for someone on a fixed income it is. I delivered prescriptions drugs for a long time for a local pharmacy, and there are some senior citizens out there (and young people too) who rely on a myriad of prescription drugs to remain healthy. If you take someone who has as many as 7 covered prescriptions, they were paying $105 for those prescriptions. Under the new plan, they would pay $140, well over the 'average' $125 predicted by the SK Party.

And I think there are a number of people who do rely on multiple prescriptions in this province, and they're going to lose some cash from their pocket. In the example above, a person is now paying $35 more than they used to. For someone on a fixed income, that $35 could have been used for groceries or access to public transit, or any other possible expenditure.

So while they are working to get people with diabetes better access to insulin, they've also laid the groundwork to make sure that those people are paying more for those drugs then they would have under the old system.

To counteract this for senior citizens, they're going to raise the SIP program to $50 (up to $10 over the next three years per month). The problem is, as noted in my example, someone who is now paying more and losing $35 due to the drug program changes, is not going to notice much of a net savings under this program.

After all, the extra money (which sounds good as $50 usually does) would only work out to $15 for the person who has 7 prescription drugs. And while $15 is better than nothing, it is still not a major advantage for the person who needs that extra money for other expenditures. 

Then we have their approach to post-secondary education. On the one hand, they're making it easier for high school students to receive $2,000 towards their tuition. Now, I'm not sure I'm reading this one right, so someone please let me know: The plan says that it will provide up to $2,000 over four years for post-secondary education.

Now, that either means that a student would receive $2,000 every four years for a grand total of $8,000 to help with their studies.

Or, it means that the student will receive small payments adding up to $2,000 over a four year period.

I'm more inclined to believe it's the latter, but I'd like to know before. It's late, and I'm confused easily in these late hours. But, effectively, the first option means that the program isn't that bad of a one. But there's no way that could meet the numbers projected by the SK Party in the budget...Unless there's a significant drop of high school students going to post-secondary education.

If it's the latter...Well, a grand total of $2,000 is nothing to a post-secondary student. Considering the cost of ONE TERM's tuition at the University of Saskatchewan is around $2,300 - $2,500; a person isn't even getting a single semester out of this program.

At the same time, the government is cancelling bursary programs for middle-income students; claiming instead that these programs should go to the most in need. While that sounds noble, there's some problems with the plan.

For starters, the program is already skewed towards helping those from lower income families. If you've ever gone through the process of getting a student loan, you know that the phrase 'your parents make too much' gets thrown around a lot, especially from government backed programs.

Furthermore, there's already differences between lower and middle income families. If you look at the Saskatchewan Student Aid Fund Report from 2009-2010, you'll see that middle income family students were guaranteed $23 per week of study; whereas low income family students were guaranteed $58 per week of study.

While eliminating the program for middle income students could allow the government to create more opportunities for lower income students, we're seeing this as a sacrifice at a 2:1 ratio. 2 middle income students are denied help from the government for every 1 lower income student.

Again, while this is a noble effort to ensure that lower income students can attend university; it fails as it doesn't help make education accessible for middle income students either. While lower income students do need the help, there is an argument to be made for middle income students as well.

Unless their families have made plans and have been saving since before the child was born, there are very few middle income families who can single-handedly put their children through university. This in turn means that students must turn to private banks, if they can even qualify, for high-interest loans that will keep the student in debt for years to come.

Furthermore, we don't know what the enrolment rate have been for the past year with regards to financial background for new students. If more middle income students are applying for post-secondary education than lower income students, it greats an entire group of people who are not receiving any help. Whereas, if more lower income students are applying, then perhaps the program makes more sense than it does on paper.

So, if it is indeed more middle income students applying for this assistance, this is not a noble effort at all. Rather, it is the concentrated effort to deny these students help while wrapping it under the guise of helping those who need it more. But if those who need it more are applying in lower numbers and not using the services provided, then it is simply a means for the government to say no to those who do need help.

At the same time, they've also paved the way for campuses like SIAST to raise their tuition by allowing the Saskatchewan Apprenticeship and Trade Certification Commission to undertake a raise to these programs in wake of demand for the seats.

The problem with this is that there has been no talk of increasing the number of training seats in the province, and rather this will create a system where those who want to get into programs will be on long waiting lists or be unable to afford the program at all. After all, if you know much about SIAST, you'll know that there are dozens of programs that have a waiting list of over a year to apply.

So, by increasing the tuition, they may free up some seats...But will those seats even be filled if people can't afford the program anymore?

A bit of a double-edged sword on that one.

Finally, the last measure I want to talk about is the removal of Film Employment Tax Credit. Since coming to work for a film festival, you gain a new appreciation for the way government provides funding to cultural programs and such in the province.

The SK Party will honour the last commitments it has to filmmakers in the province, but will not accept new applications. Effectively, the program was a tax credit that saw a return of no more than 50% on taxes paid by filmmakers within the province.

A number of people have already spoken out about this program being cut, especially those in the film making business. For example, one of the producers of CBC show InSecurity (which shoots in Regina and Ottawa), has said that if they do another season they will not be doing any shooting in Regina due to the new costs that would be incurred.

She also went on to suggest that the production made money for the province, at least more than it cost for the tax credit, and that the government is being shortsighted in cancelling this program.

While it may not affect the day to day lives of the average Saskatchewanian, the loss of this program is going to have an impact on our economy; but this is a move that wasn't that surprising from this government, given their closure of support for one of Saskatchewan's largest sound stages in Regina a few years ago.

This is effectively a potential death knell for an entire industry in the province; and it will have impact on the economy as a whole. If you shut down one section of the economy, everyone is going to feel it eventually.

If the government wanted to save money on the program, they could have instituted stronger rules for who could qualify for the program...Such as requiring a certain percentage of the crew or talent to be residents of Saskatchewan. This could have allowed the program to continue, while also ensuring that more people in our province were given access to jobs in the film making field.

As it stands now, there is a strong chance that these jobs are going to dry up in Saskatchewan and some incredibly talented people are going to leave Saskatchewan to look for greener pastures.

For a government wanting to keep our economy strong and developing, this is one blunder that makes us wonder whether or not they actually believe what they say.

I'm sure that there's other noteworthy things to talk about from the budget, but for now, those are the points I wanted to get across. I've provided a source link for the budget's highlights, so feel free to look it over for yourself and draw some conclusions.

No comments: