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Saskatchewan government willing to spend what's needed on COVID-19 pandemic


REGINA — The Saskatchewan government has outlined its spending for the year ahead, with $200 million more for health care and $1.3 billion for emergencies.

The Saskatchewan Party government released a half budget of sorts today — a spending plan without revenue forecasts.

It says dollar amounts initially budgeted are no longer reliable in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and shutdown of services.

The spending plan shows the government intends to spend about $14 billion in 2020-21.

The province said it will add in revenue projections sometime later this year.

Finance Minister Donna Harpauer said the government, which had promised a balanced budget with a small surplus, may now run a deficit.

She said the government doesn't intend to raise taxes, though.

"I do not believe it's responsible to just cut things in these circumstances," Harpauer said at a news conference Wednesday.

"I recognize there will be a deficit, and let's just see how things unfold."

Saskatchewan announced eight new cases of COVID-19 on Wednesday, doubling the number to 16.

It's not known how much the pandemic could cost the health-care system. Premier Scott Moe said those figures are being looked at by the Saskatchewan Health Authority.

Harpauer said she's not involved in planning how many hospital beds and medical supplies might be needed as infections rise, but added that the government will be providing resources as needed.

"We will be there for what it will cost."

The sitting was adjourned Wednesday afternoon because of the pandemic and the spending plan wasn't passed. The government intends to rely on a system of accessing money through special approval from the lieutenant-governor.

The Opposition had been calling for the budget to be delayed and leader Ryan Meili said he has questions about the $1.3 billion contingency fund.

"To say, 'Yes, we'll have a blank cheque,' what does that mean? What are they actually mobilizing?" he asked.

"We need a very clear description. How many dollars? How many doctors? How many nurses? How many beds? How many ventilators?"

Officials said there are just over 100 intensive care unit beds in the province. The Saskatchewan Health Authority said it has 91 ventilators for critical care and 80 for subacute care, but is ordering more.

Much of the government's $200-million increase in health is to go to the Saskatchewan Health Authority. Health dollars are also earmarked for initiatives that include opening of new treatment services for crystal meth addiction in southeastern Saskatchewan and efforts to reduce surgical wait times.

The government is not providing $1.3 million requested by AIDS Saskatoon to fund what would be the province's first supervised drug consumption site.

The province also announced a provincial sales tax rebate for new home construction. The 42 per cent rebate would be on homes up to $350,000, purchased after the end of March and before April 2023.

The government plans a small increase to universities, as well as $42 million more to school boards.

The government also said it will spend millions building and renovating new schools, most of them in Regina in Saskatoon — areas Moe has said have seen significant population growth.

It says it hopes $2.7 billion in infrastructure spending starting next year will stimulate the economy.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published on March 18, 2020

Stephanie Taylor, The Canadian Press

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