FEATURE: Year in Review 2015

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REGINA – The fiscal year began with a $700 million oil shortfall when oil prices dropped from over $100 a barrel to less than half that come budget day.

In order to make up the difference, government decreased spending and dipped into its reserve fund.

“They drained another $250 million from the rainy day fund they hadn’t announced to the public,” decried NDP finance critic, Trent Wotherspoon.

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Government also found ways to save with changes to the Grad Retention Program. Graduates will no longer get a refund for staying in the province – instead, they’ll receive a non-refundable tax credit rolled over ten years instead of seven.

After the community rallied to keep a hyperbaric chamber in Moose Jaw, the government and health region relented and made room for it in the new hospital, but it was another tough financial decision.

“The offers that we’ve had as a government from the firefighters and from the foundation and from local business people for example, to help pay for some costs to keep it here, we’re going to need that. It’s a tight budget year,” said Premier Brad Wall.

That wasn’t the first time the government changed its mind this year. A little more than a year after they allowed stripping while alcohol was served, the Saskatchewan Party banned it again.

“In talking with law enforcement in our province, they indicated to me close to 100 percent of the clubs in central Canada will be operated by the Hell’s Angels,” the Premier explained. “If by this decision we have inadvertently allowed for even a marginal increase in the chance for human trafficking, it’s the wrong decision.”

If by this decision, we have inadvertently allowed for even a marginal increase in the chance for human trafficking, it’s the wrong decision

Other advocates believed there was too much risk associated with licensed strip clubs. Earlier this year, Regina city council denied an application for a strip club at the former Whiskey Saloon after public outcry.

“I had more people contact my office and city hall on this than on any other issue this term. That includes the referendum for the waste water treatment plant or the stadium. So people were very much motivated by this issue,” said Mayor Michael Fougere.

Summer 2015 was marked by wildfires in northern Saskatchewan, which forced close to 13,000 people in 50 different communities from their homes. It was the largest evacuation effort in the province’s history.  The cost for the emergency effort was over $100 million dollars that the premier says he’ll find in an already strapped budget.

In late fall, Saskpower’s carbon capture megaproject was the subject of ongoing bad news. An internal Saskpower operations chart showed the plant has struggled to contain more than half its daily emissions this year and isn’t even capturing CO2 at the same rate as late 2014.

“The problems are still there and the reality does not match up with the lines, the spin, the self-congratulatory news releases we’ve seen,” said Opposition Leader, Cam Broten.

Meanwhile, the government amended its essential services legislation after the Supreme Court had deemed it unconstitutional to tell public employees, like firefighters and nurses they couldn’t strike.

Now it’s up to a union and the employer to determine which services are essential.

“We’d be better off if we could have found another alternative earlier. We didn’t. We couldn’t and this is where we’re at now,” said labour relations and workplace safety minister, Don Morgan.

Despite making 77 changes to Saskatchewan’s liquor laws, Restaurants Canada still gave the province a D+ for its policies for restaurants and bars. It was mostly because they still can’t buy alcohol at wholesale prices. The cost is then passed on to consumers.

“There are too many differences. It’s complicated and it just needs to be simplified where if you’re in the business of selling alcohol, you’re in the business of selling alcohol and these are the rules for everybody,” said Greg Hanwell, a partner at Regina’s Beer Bros.

Healthcare

When it comes to healthcare, the government denied special funding for families whose children had rare diseases, but then changed their minds in one case. Three Saskatoon siblings that made headlines this year will receive treatment on a trial basis for one year.

The Sask Party walked away from its goal to eliminate emergency room waits by 2017.

At the same time, the wait list for surgery has jumped in both Saskatoon and Regina by more than 50 per cent. The government cut surgery funding in the last budget, but the health minister defended the move.

“We’re really talking about going from not a three month wait, but a four month wait, or perhaps from three months to five months. Yes, we do want to get that back down to zero across the province, but we’re a long ways away from when people were waiting two to three years,” said Dustin Duncan.

In November, the government passed its private MRI bill, saying they would take in money from people who would have gone out of province and it would reduce the provincial wait list. However, critics argued it could lead to queue jumping.

“If you have a private MRI and you’ve got your MRI you’re going to get priority access to a surgeon or priority access to some other kind of intervention,” said Dr. Sally Mahood, a family doctor in Regina.

2015: A Year in Review airs on December 19th and 20th at 6:30pm on Focus Saskatchewan.

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