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SUMA, SSBA bad enemies to have

Posted on April 18, 2017 by Maple Creek

By Murray Mandryk

Keeping every stakeholder group happy is a virtual impossibility for any Saskatchewan government.

Sure, there are going to be certain stakeholders usually aligned with any governing parties particular philosophies.

Generally, NDP governments could count on the Saskatchewan Federation of Labour and a series of other non-governmental organizations tasked with delivering social policies.

But when finances got tight, even NDP governments couldn’t exactly depend on these groups to silently sit by and say nothing.

Similarly, the former Progressive Conservative government and now the Saskatchewan Party government could generally lean on the Chambers of Commerce, most agriculture groups and the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities. (SARM’s long-standing feud with left-wing government can be traced back 60 years to the CCF Tommy Douglas’s Royal Commission on Agriculture that suggested replacing the province’s RM system with a country system.)

But like the NDP, conservative-minded governments could not always rely on these stakeholders to be quiet when government policy was not in their interest.

In this vein, the most critical such stakeholders are the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association (SUMA) and the Saskatchewan School Board Association (SSBA), largely because these organizations provide services to such a wide breadth of this province.

And while no Saskatchewan government is ever going to have a perfect relationship with SUMA and the SSBA, it is generally easier to keep a good, working relationship with these two key stakeholder groups that are viewed as neutral.

So the approach of Premier Brad Wall’s government to the concerns raised by SUMA and the SSBA has been more than a little strange.

It is, after all, SUMA and SSBA who will be responsible for doling the distasteful dose of bad medicine in the 2017-18 Saskatchewan budget.

Recently, the deputy minister of Education sent out letters to school boards re-affirming that the province expected them to negotiate a 3.5-per-cent wage decrease and no increases for next three years.

However, the letter stressed to the boards that these cuts “cannot be achieved through further reductions in staff levels, capturing attrition or other cost reductions beyond that which is required to meet operating grant targets.”

But no sooner was that letter made public than Finance Minister Kevin Doherty was telling reporters at the Saskatchewan legislature that layoffs might be needed in education to achieve this cut/wage freeze.

This all came on the heels of this government’s on-going justification for eliminating SaskPower and SaskEnergy grants-in-lieu to 109 specific cities and towns in this province.

It’s a move that the government has slightly amended so that communities likes Yorkton and North Battleford aren’t take quite the hit they would have taken.

But what seems clear is that SUMA and SSBA, normally, rather neutral , are very frustrated.

These organizations have seen their members’ budgets cut. They have been criticized for raising property taxes and cutting non-core services.

Is it any wonder we are hearing SUMA and SSBA now say they no long feel they have a partnership with the province?

In fairness to Wall’s government, it is taking the braver course of attempting to deal with the deficit and debt, head on.

As previously mentioned in this space, that seems more reasonable than the hope-and-prayer approach of Alberta’s NDP government that’s relying on oil price recovery to address its much bigger deficit. Wall also is right that it has provided cities and towns with record revenue sharing in the past 10 years.

But the province’s suggestion that cities and towns (which can’t legally run deficits) should simply rely on their earmarked reserves to balance operational shortfalls isn’t exactly sage advice.

Moreover, it’s making enemies out of stakeholders that government need to at least remain neutral.

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