It's a busy portfolio, an all encompassing mandate, but Bill Boyd appears to be thriving in the swirling vortex that is the Ministry of the Economy in Saskatchewan.
Boyd paid a visit to Estevan last Friday afternoon, a guest of the local chamber of commerce, to provide some additional insight to the recently released Plans for Growth template that had been issued by Premier Brad Wall just a few days earlier.
Accompanied by Estevan MLA Doreen Eagles, Boyd, the former minister of Energy and Resources, touched on several topics that gained the most attention in the Plans for Growth document.
The veteran politician, first elected in 1991 as a Progressive Conservative, has taken on increasingly vital roles and ministries with the current Saskatchewan Party government and now he's charged with the task of running herd on an almost runaway growth spurt in this province.
“We're seeing the fastest growth in Saskatchewan compared with the past 90 years and there are a lot of questions out there such as, 'Is growth really a good thing?'” said Boyd who was speaking to just under 100 people who had gathered in the Taylorton Room at the Days Inn.
Answering his own question, Boyd said that “yes, growth is good and it's important because with an increase in building permits, the provincial government has been able to reduce the debt by 44 per cent in recent years while providing a balanced budget.
“Our blueprint calls for an overarching increase in infrastructure and that's evident in the $50 million extra spent on highways this year. A Saskatchewan Builds infrastructure fund was started, bringing all plans together into one agency, the Economy Ministry, where we can establish priorities, bring in partnerships and build a security fund, which has been maintained so far at around $500 million. We expect to be investing as much as $2.5 billion on infrastructure items alone over the next five years,” Boyd said.
The blueprint also calls for up to 7,000 affordable housing units, especially those for low income citizens ... with a target of 8,500 within the next few years. That mandate will be stimulated by a corresponding array of programs that will appeal to private investors. There could be as many as 12,600 new housing units in the province by 2016, counting those that were started under the new mandate in 2011, he said.
“We've also made progress on the property taxation file and we know that we just can't raise royalty rates whenever we please because we also know that investors can choose to go elsewhere. Our corporate rate is going down to 10 per cent from 12 per cent and that will match Alberta's rate,” said Boyd.
Small business taxes are also sinking, said Boyd, who didn't shy away from the controversial Saskatchewan Employment Act changes that are being proposed. He said the conversation around these proposed changes regarding participation in unions, will be a lively one for employers, employees and unions moving forward.
Moving the debt downward is a big plus for the province and that's why the government will focus on that too, said the minister.
“Outside investors always ask about our debt levels because they know that if the debt is high, it will inevitably result in higher taxes, so we're extremely responsive to this message,” Boyd added.
With an expected $13 billion to be realized in potash investments and a competitive oilpatch royalty regime in place, there will be opportunities to increase education opportunities and recruit skilled labour because the province needs over 60,000 more tradespeople. Immigration recruitment and bringing ex-pats home are two strategies being pursued on top of the increased educational and training spaces for local students including First Nations candidates.
“We're adding 300 apprenticeship seats in our post-secondary institutions and adding more training at the high schools and agriculture training programs for today's equipment is needed more than ever,” he said. In fact, Boyd predicted there will be a huge pickup in interest in agricultural training courses within the next few years.
“Look at it all, food, fuel and fertilizer, we have the edge. There is a Global Institute for Food Security and we can move more aggressively on this file, up to $15 billion in agricultural exports thanks to technology. Look at fuel, the Bakken formation, shale gas, clean coal technology. We've committed to coal for our future and there are challenges and we're addressing them. On the uranium front, we're showing nuclear innovation. We have international engagement on all fronts because we are an exporting province,” Boyd said. “We can double exports in the next few years and gain fiscal stability.”
On the education front Boyd said the high school drop-out rate needs to be lowered as well as base-line learning skills and to that end, transparent reports on student progress will be fully implemented by 2016.
“We're back to growth in this province and that needs to be sustained and we have the people to make it happen.”
Later in response to questions from the floor and then during a media scrum, Boyd said that the southeast Saskatchewan sector has gained global interest on the clean coal file and the province has to find a way to “get oil to the tidewater because once it hits the seas, it's at Brent Crude prices, not West Texas prices and Brent is about $20 a barrel higher right now.”
In terms of putting so many eggs into the one basket being carried by the Ministry of the Economy, Boyd said there is a lot of prioritizing going on and some political wrangling as a result, and “there is no bad idea. But there are competing choices, so this is a good ministry to bring it all together to better evaluate those choices as the population grows.”
Bringing the Energy and Resources portfolio as a sub-ministry into the Economy Ministry has led to Energy and Resources being divided into a policy area that fits in with the Ministry of Economy and a regulatory area that fits in with the traditional Energy and Resources mandate, Boyd said.
“They work pretty well together and Energy and Resources Minister Tim McMillen and I work pretty well together too,” he said.
Boyd added that right now his most ambitious file or busiest file within the Economy Ministry seems to be investment attraction, which includes a lot of attention being paid to the current growth and development of the transportation hub going up near Regina.