Do Sask. MLAs make the grade?

The legislative session is over, and MLAs are returning to their home communities for the summer.

Global News frequently asks professors for commentary on political matters of the day. So we got three of our regulars, Ken Rasmussen (Johnson-Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy), Jim Farney (political science) and Jason Childs (economics) to grade the performance of several key MLAs.

Are cracks beginning to show in Wall after a decade into his term, or is the country’s most popular premier meeting one of his government’s biggest challenges head on?

“I think he delivered a really difficult budget in a way that hasn’t destroyed the party, and hasn’t destroyed its prospects for the next election,” Childs said.

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Most of the issues Premier Wall faced came from the rollout of the provincial budget. As Farney pointed out, other issues impeded the premier, such as his use of a private email server.

“For a guy that exuded a lot of confidence… there wasn’t a lot of great footing there. He didn’t really seem to have his feet and his game together like he has had in the past, so he showed weakness,” Rasmussen said.

“He hasn’t managed to transition into a Premier who cares in its good times to being a premier who cares in its bad times very well at all I don’t think,” Farney said.

Overall, not the best showing for the long-serving Premier but he held onto a majority of his support.

Opposition leader Trent Wotherspoon is in a different situation than his peers because in a year he will no longer be interim NDP leader. This is where his challenges appear.

“I think they need to start presenting alternative budgets, because one of the criticisms I keep hearing is, it’s fine to say this sucks, but what are you going to do?” Childs asked.

Farney agreed that the NDP need to start presenting alternative ideas, but overall he said the budget response was a strength of Wotherspoon’s.

“He did well. He had lots of targets to go after. He moved his team around well so it wasn’t just him opposing, basically the whole caucus got in on the act,” Farney explained.

“As an interim leader that’s really important.”

As Wotherspoon’s time leading the NDP comes to an end, the consensus is the party needs to shift from just being an opposition if they want to succeed next election.

“As they get set for a new leader, and so on they’re going to need to appear as more of a government in waiting than merely an effective opposition,” Rasmussen said.

Finance Minister Kevin Doherty’s second budget aims to get the province out of deficit in three years, but the consequences of cuts dominated headlines.

“I think he did a good job doing a sales pitch on what is arguably one of the harshest budgets released in a long time in Saskatchewan,” Rasmussen said.

However, Rasmussen believes this budget may still cost Doherty his seat in the next election.

Farney said this budget dampened the province’s relationship with the small business community, which is backed up by Canadian Federation of Independent Business surveys.

“That’s such a core constituency with this government. To not have them onside is a really big weakness,” Farney said.

At this point, Childs said the finance minister’s best course of action is to push forward and focus on the budget’s strengths.

“Say look, this is going to put us to a place where we can do different things where we’re not going to be paying ridiculous amounts of interest servicing this debt,” he said.

Education Minister Don Morgan found himself at the centre of multiple controversies, including cutting the operating budgets of school boards, increasing the decision making power of his ministry, cutting library funding and ultimately restoring it.

“I think by walking back the library cuts. That really showed some strength,” Childs said.

“Credit where credit is due, it’s never easy for a politician to do that.”

The legislative session may be over, but Morgan isn’t out of the woods on dealing with school boards yet. Their reduced budgets are due next month.

“So despite the work they’ve done in trying to establish a basis to go forward they didn’t really convince many people this was the way forward, certainly none of the major stakeholders,” Rasmussen said.

As for the two grades, Farney said Morgan is difficult to evaluate. He said it ultimately comes down to if you agree with his decisions.

“If you like the direction he’s taking things then you’d probably give him an A- for really driving change. If you don’t then he’s down in the D’s,” Farney explained.

Grants-in-lieu of property taxes, the formally obscure agreement between the provinces and 109 municipalities has stirred tensions between the two levels of government since budget day.

Childs saw Harpauer standing by this decision, and standing up to municipal response, as her biggest strength this session.

“[Harpauer said] these guys are just being whiners basically. They’ve got reserves, they’ve got money. Why should these guys not get cut as well? But that’s a pretty weak win,” the economics professor said.

Childs added removing grants-in-lieu payments for SaskPower and SaskEnergy properties alienated affected towns and cities, who should be key allies.

Both Farney and Rasmussen saw it as a poor performance overall.

“She’s an experienced minister, so it was an inexplicably weak performance,” Rasmussen said.

The government relations minister did restore partial funding for nine communities, and removed a clause in the bill that would have prevented legal action.

However, there is still ground to recover. A task Farney said should be Harpauer’s key focus.

“Find some kind of common ground. Find some areas to cooperate on that are workable. I mean infrastructure is always one,” Farney said.

“She’s got a responsibility for First Nation’s issues too, and there’s always more work that can be done there.”

The session began with Ryan Meili being sworn in after winning the Saskatoon-Meewasin by election following the untimely passing of Sask. Party member Roger Parent.

The rookie MLA and two time NDP leadership candidate served as critic for a number of portfolios, most notably advanced education.

“He didn’t come across as a rookie, I think he had a fairly strong performance given that there’s a lot of attention focused on him, rightly or wrongly,” Rasmussen said.

However, with the Saskatchewan NDP leadership campaign approaching all three professors thought Meili didn’t stand out as a leader-in-waiting.

“I didn’t really notice that he came through in the news the same that Nicole Sarauer did or Carla Beck. I don’t think he was noticeably landing punches,” Farney said.

Premier Brad Wall and other cabinet members took to calling Meili the next NDP leader during Question Period.

Meili announced his intentions to seek a third provincial NDP leadership bid Thursday morning. Childs said he will have to broaden his political approach, and show he can be a leader for the province and not just a faction of the NDP.

“These ideas have to be manageable, affordable, and there’s got to be a recognition that cranking the corporate tax rate back up to 40, 50 per cent is not on,” Childs said.

“That’s just not going to fly.”

The MLAs will now go back to their constituents and do their homework over the summer before returning to Regina for the fall session, where ongoing consequences of the budget are sure to dominate the house.

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