03/19/2014 07:30 EDT | Updated 05/19/2014 05:59 EDT

Education property taxes frozen in Saskatchewan budget

Education property taxes will not be going up this year, according to the 2014-15 provincial budget released by Finance Minister Ken Krawetz Wednesday.

"Because of the decline in revenue our government had a choice to make: raise taxes or control spending," Krawetz said. "Our preference will always be to balance the budget by controlling spending."

But with Crown debt rising, and billions of new spending on the way — Saskatchewan residents might be looking forward to higher utility rates in the years ahead.

Krawetz said the $14-billion budget is balanced, and the province will in fact end up with a $71 million surplus.

The province mulled a property tax increase, but in the end decided against it, he said.

"It wasn't an easy decision," Krawetz said. 

"If you increase [mill rates] by about one mill, government will end up having an additional $110 million into the education property tax fund, so that's substantial.

No Heritage Fund, for now

Pre-budget, there had been some discussion about establishing a Heritage fund, making use of windfall non-renewable resource money.

But that didn't happen. NDP finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said it was disappointing to hear the government say it's going to wait until the debt is paid off.

"It's a lost opportunity for the next generation, to take the opportunity we've been presented currently out of this period of economic strength and resource wealth to put some of those dollars away for the long term," Wotherspoon said.

The budget is trying to deal with the pressures of a growing province, according to Krawetz.

Both the economy and the population have been growing at a rate not seen for decades. Last year, Saskatchewan grew by 20,000 people.

So, there's money put aside for four major school projects and hospital capital projects in Moose Jaw and Prince Albert.

There's money earmarked for 500 new daycare spaces, 700 adult basic education spaces and 300 apprenticeship training seats.

The province is also looking at a new commuter bridge in Saskatoon, although it's not committing any dollars this year.

However, much of the budget could be called  stay-the-course or status quo. There are no major new programs being introduced or eliminated. Income and sales taxes aren't being raised or cut.

Revenues ($14.07 billion) are down slightly, while spending ($14.0 billion) is also down. The province gets much of its income from oil, gas and other non-renewable resources and that will continue, although weak potash prices will mean less income from that mineral.
As usual, the biggest single item in the budget is health, accounting for $5.4 billion in spending.
Second is education, with $3.7 billion projected.

The province says it will spend $95 million to repave 300 kilometres of highway.

New accounting format

One big change in this budget is a move to emphasize the summary budget, which includes all activities of government and not just ministries.

The new emphasis on the summary budget (rather than the general revenue fund) takes Crown corporation spending and debt into consideration.

The government says Crown corporations like SaskPower and SaskTel, and SaskEnergy will plan $2 billion in capital spending in 2014-2015.

While government debt is holding steady at around $3.8 billion, Crown debt is going up to about $7.2 billion from $5.9 billion.