Little Tax on the Prairie

Earlier this year, one of the big political fights in this province was over Saskatchewan’s film tax credit, which helped TV and film productions to operate here on a more even playing field with the rest of the country (at the moment, we are now the only province in Canada without a film tax credit program). Our film industry employed thousands of people, and defenders of the credit claimed that every dollar’s worth of credit brought six more into the province by various means; picture anyone travelling to Rouleau just to buy souvenirs if Corner Gas had never been filmed there. Whether there is any truth to this $1 to $6 claim or not, the estimated tax credits given out were somewhere in the neighbourhood of about $8 million per year, and Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan Party (Yes, people outside Canada or Saskatchewan, we really have a governing political party named after the province. That is what a hick place we are.) has told us that we just don’t have the money to be handing it out to these carpetbaggers any more. And besides, “If an industry cannot survive at all without a permanent taxpayer subsidy, should the taxpayers subsidize indefinitely?” This was the official reasoning given to us, and it’s the line they’ve stood by since.

Fair enough, I suppose, though it does raise the question of our massive tax subsidies to the oil and potash industries, which for oil amounts to something like $327 million per year, and while projections on the ten year tax holiday potash is going to benefit from on top of the $100,000 per year for each office job created and subsidized electricity for their mining and processing operations are difficult to come by, it’s a safe guess that it will total somewhat more than $8 million per year. However, many will protests that this is not a fair comparison, this is apples and oranges; you can’t compare heavy industry like oil and potash to the film industry, the natures of each are far too different for that. This is perhaps a fair criticism, it’s not as if film companies have to take on massive capital expenses like the ones mining and oil exploration require; all you need is a few cameras and a couple of actors, maybe a script, and you’re set. Oh, and maybe some sets. It’s not like you’re dropping a mineshaft or drilling for oil, the expenses are not comparable, and neither is the economic impact on the province (or the environmental impact, but shut up about that, you commie tree hugger).

Again, fair enough. However, the other big news is that the Roughriders are getting a new stadium, with a $278 million price tag. The funding breaks down this way: an $80 million grant from the province, a $100 million loan from the province to the city of Regina, $73 million coming up front from the city, and the final $25 million coming from the team. As far as the Riders organization is concerned, they’re getting a quarter billion dollar plus stadium for 90% off, so it’s a really good deal for them. Add in the plan to raise ticket prices by 50% (from $8/ticket to $12) once the new stadium is built, and the pot just gets sweeter and sweeter in Riderville. So, with just the up-front expense that the provincial government is throwing at this project, you could fund the film tax credit program for the next 22.5 years, maintaining an industry that employs thousands throughout the province and adds to the provinces artistic and cultural contribution. But look closely at the wording of Mr. Wall’s tweet, it’s a “permanent” taxpayer subsidy he’s objecting to on principle, and this is a one-time expense, totally different things. Well, other than the $675 million in capital requirements over the proposed stadium’s 30 year life expectancy, so it’s really a thirty-year-long one-time expense, but thirty years isn’t “permanent”, so nuts to you. And while that would cover the film tax credit for a little over 84 years, after that 84 years is up, what then, Mr. Smartypants?

And then there are the political realities to consider. The Sask Party is for all intents and purposes a rebranded version of the Progressive Conservative Party (yeah, I know, it’s not like “Saskatchewan Party” was a step down in silly names, but we are one of the most bush league political arenas in the world, so cut us some slack.), and if there’s one thing that conservatives aren’t historically keen on, it’s hippy artsy fartsy types like you get in the film and TV industry. These people are never going to vote for Mr. Wall’s party, and they are just jerks enough to encourage other people to vote against him too, so why would he want his government’s money going to support them? It just makes sense to slash their funding from a political perspective, these people are his political enemies, so the politically smart thing to do is to encourage them to leave the province (which they are doing in droves).

Now, as for the Riders? Hell, just putting on a green tie on Labour Day in this province will net most politicians a five point bump in the polls, and signing over $675 million over 30 years to our only professional sports team is as close as you can get to buying an election without actually breaking any laws. Brad Wall gets to show up on the cover of the Star-Phoenix in his Riders jersey with a novelty cheque in his hands, and suddenly he’s Ed McMahon with nicer glasses (seriously, you can’t find nicer frames than the ones Brad Wall has, I need to find out who his optometrist is). This is a total no-brainer for any politician; he has all but locked in another term as premier by doing this, and he would have turned huge numbers of voting old people against him if he had killed the deal. Now that Corner Gas is off the air, there isn’t a film or TV production in the province that could ever hope to sway voters the way the Riders do; and even Brent Butt himself couldn’t hope to get you the kind of polling boost these days that a green tie in September would.

So let’s take a step back from this and reconsider Mr. Wall’s explanation of why his government killed the film tax credit. Eight million a year is pocket change next to the subsidies we routinely throw at other industries in this province, crying poverty over something as relatively minor as this is disingenuous at best. It’s not that it’s a tax burden our economy can’t bear; even without the money flowing into the province from outside and offsetting the expense six-fold, it’s about eight bucks per person out of our pockets, it’s not going to break us. By way of contrast, just the province and city’s initial costs on this new stadium would be enough to buy every single resident of Saskatchewan a 10-pack of tickets to see the Riders in every home game this year. Now, if we actually had a million people showing up to every Rider game for a year, that could very well justify the expense of a new stadium, but seeing as they’re running around 30,000/game, maybe the other 970,000 of us aren’t getting our money’s worth on this deal.

I really don’t mind politicians acting out of informed self-interest, I would be disappointed in them if they didn’t do so, and I would wonder what kind of fools we’d elected to govern us. For the most part I have very little against Mr. Wall and his party apart from their silly, comically jingoistic name; what I don’t like is an obvious lie. If you have a clear and obvious political motivation for gutting a program, just say so; don’t hide behind principles you clearly do not hold, it’s insulting to us. We aren’t (all) stupid, we understand that you want to hold on to power, and that doing so is a whole lot easier without quite so many articulate, creative opponents and critics around calling you on things you want to do without getting hassled about it. We get that, we really do, and if you would address us like adults who understand that political concerns really do play in the process of government, I wouldn’t have this growing distaste for the way you treat the people of this province. When your motives are as transparent as they were in the move to kill the film tax credit, you just make yourself look foolish by pretending that it’s about fiscal responsibility in any way. I understand that you need to pretend you’re funding the new stadium out of Rider Pride and all that or the political placebo effect you’re gaining would evaporate, and that’s fine, it’s all part of the game. However, you really need to come up with a more plausible line of bullshit to apply to your hamstringing of your political opponents, or eventually people are going to start noticing a pattern in what programs you’re destroying.