Two weeks from today, voters in Saskatchewan go to the polls. You may be forgiven for not having noticed this one coming since it has barely registered in the national press. And that’s not just because of the usual central Canadian obliviousness, or because it’s a fly-over province; it’s also because this is one of the least competitive match-ups since…. well, since the last time Brad Wall won re-election. CBC’s poll currently gives the Saskatchewan Party a 25 point lead over the New Democrats.
Normally, when provinces go to the polls I do a detailed look at their post-secondary platforms. It hardly seems worth it here. Neither the Liberals nor the Greens have a chance of taking a seat so frankly, who cares? The NDP has released a platform full of promises large and small (my particular favourite: on page 34, they pledge to put more refrigerators in public liquor stores in order to provide more cold beer options), but did not even bother to put out a costing document, which suggests not even they think they have a hope in hell of winning on April 4. For their part, the Saskatchewan Party has put out a manifesto, which basically says “elect us and the good times will continue to roll”: no strong vision of the future, just a recounting of past glories and four small promises that add up to a total of $110M over four years. The only manifesto I can think of that comes close to this in sheer complacency is the Liberal Red Book from the 2000 federal election. Which, given that oil is still around $40/barrel, is quite something.
But hey, when you’re writing a daily blog, sometimes you need an easy target. So here goes:
The Saskatchewan NDP platform on PSE is pretty awful. They want to “improve funding for post-secondary institutions” (By how much? Who knows? There’s no costing document). They want to offer everyone a $1,000 rebate on tuition, which everyone knows is regressive. They also want to convert all provincial loans, but this actually isn’t much money since Saskatchewan aid is mostly grant. But, get this: they also want to get rid of interest on outstanding provincial loans, which is just a whole mountain of dumb since it has no effect whatever on access, and rewards people for choices they made years ago. Offering to help borrowers in distress is sensible; a blanket interest subsidy for people who have already finished their studies implies the manifesto-writer has suffered some kind of head trauma.
Still, in some ways, the NDP platform looks good in comparison to what the Saskatchewan Party is offering. As some of you probably know, for the past decade or so the Government of Saskatchewan has offered a generous set of tax credits to graduates who stay within the province. Essentially, if you are a university graduate you can reduce your payable provincial taxes by $2,000/year for the first four years that you live in the province, and $4,000 per year for the next three (if you don’t earn enough in a given year to use all of that, you can carry forward to a future year; amounts are reduced slightly for college graduates). Add to this the usual panoply of federal and provincial tax credits, and you realize that Saskatchewan graduates who stay in the province are receiving more in tax benefits than they ever pay in tuition.
If that formulation sounds familiar, it should – it’s exactly the way Ontario finally figured out it could market itself as having “free tuition” to low-income students without spending a penny. But the Saskatchewan Party, instead of following Ontario and transferring money to a more front-ended set of incentives, has decided to double-down on the back-end. Their big post-secondary-related pledge is to allow graduates to take up to $10,000 unused rebate money and use it as a down payment on the purchase of a house.
Yes, I am serious. Check it out. Page 8.
I mean, in a way, it’s genius; a twofer tax credit, combining the middle-class’ two fondest wishes: that government subsidize both their education and their house purchases. And if you assume the basic premise that graduates need financial inducements to stay in the province, why not make that financial inducement in the form of a housing subsidy, which physically ties graduates to the province?
But in another, deeper, way it’s a travesty. If the Saskatchewan Party has done such a fantastic job managing the economy, why does the province still need this financial inducement to get people to stay in the province? If the argument is that “young people need a break”, why give so much to those likeliest to succeed (i.e. university grads) and nothing to those least likely (those who never make it to PSE)?
So, yeah, Saskatchewan. Yet another province with a bi-partisan consensus that all the specified PSE goodies should go to students and graduates rather than, you know, the actual institutions who provide the education. Raspberries all around.