Alberta finance minister says first budget to attack spending, not services

Premier Jason Kenney’s government has stressed that funding to health, education will be preserved

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews says the United Conservative government’s first budget will surgically attack spending but not at the expense of essential services.

Toews says it’s critical to end a recent run of multibillion-dollar deficits within four years, as his party promised in the spring election campaign.

“It will be a budget of restraint, but this isn’t 1993,” Toews said Wednesday, referring to the Progressive Conservative budgets of the early 1990s that saw reductions of 18 per cent.

“This will be a thoughtful, surgical budget that will balance (the budget) in our first term.”

Premier Jason Kenney’s government has already stressed that funding to health and education will be preserved or increased, but measures must be taken to prevent rising debt payments that will otherwise cripple future generations.

“This isn’t going to be a budget of across-the-board cuts,” said Toews, as he pulled on a pair of size 10 cowboy boots as part of a tradition among finance ministers to showcase footwear before the budget.

He said the boots, like the budget, reflect the heritage, resilience and self-reliance of Albertans.

The budget is the first one by Kenney’s government. He has promised a landmark spending document that will reorient Alberta’s economy for years to come.

The former NDP government ran four years of multibillion-dollar deficits as it worked to match services with population growth, while embarking on an ambitious program of repairing and building infrastructure — all as sluggish oil and gas prices squeezed the bottom line.

Alberta ran a $6.7-billion deficit in the last fiscal year that ended in March. The debt is approaching $60 billion and is on track to hit $96 billion by 2023.

After winning the April election, the UCP commissioned a panel to review Alberta’s finances. It reported back in August that the province is spending more per capita for public services than comparable regions and getting poorer outcomes.

Kenney has promised to rein in spending while attempting to grow the economy by passing legislation to cut the corporate tax to eight per cent from 12 per cent over four years.

The NDP, now in opposition, call it a regressive plan that rewards corporate friends, has not created jobs and is likely to reduce services and supports for those who can least afford it, including students and people relying on disability payments.

The New Democrats also expect that costs will be downloaded. A recent proposal from the province has already suggested that rural municipalities pick up some or most of policing costs.

“I’ve heard from other organizations that receive grants that are bracing for 25 per cent reductions over three years,” said finance critic Shannon Phillips.

“That doesn’t sound very careful or thoughtful to me. It sounds like an across-the-board program that will ensure that ordinary people get less while large corporations get a $4.5-billion tax cut.”

The government disputes that figure. It also says the number is misleading because it is a straight-line projection over four years and doesn’t factor in job growth or new revenues.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

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