Premier Jim Prentice has reaffirmed his government will face fiscal challenges head-on in an effort to get off the energy revenue rollercoaster and to diversify the economy.
The premier visited Lacombe last Friday, joined by Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Rod Fox at the Legion, to speak with Albertans about what the government is doing to remedy the financial challenges.
While Prentice didn’t allude to any of the items that will or will not be included in the provincial budget expected on March 26th nor did he hint at a possible spring election, he indicated the PC Party plans to have all of their candidates in place by the end of the month. “You need to be ready. We’ve got great candidates, great people being nominated and elected for our party right across the province – you know, young dynamic candidates Rod’s age and others. It’s really exciting.”
Prentice said Albertans are facing challenging times and the, “Best way to deal with those challenges is to deal with them head-on.”
He said the current financial circumstances of the province boils down to oil prices.
“We’ve been through ups and downs before in this province,” he said. “But the truth is this one may be a little bit steeper in terms of how quickly it happened.”
Indicating that the province’s current financial state may be a reality for the next few years, the government is preparing for lower market oil prices than under $80 a barrel, he said.
“We are going to have to be tough and resilient the way that we always have been as Albertans,” he said. “Our economy is not the issue in this province. The economy is more diversified than people realize.”
Sighting a strong agriculture and ranching sector, Prentice said there is some need to enhance the province’s ability to export into the Asian Pacific basin.
“We have a strong farming community and we are doing just fine on that front,” he said. He added the forestry sector, tourism and research sector within universities are also firing on all cylinders, boosting the economy.
The real problem lends to the lack of diversifying the revenue base, said Prentice.
“It’s really not the economy,” he said. “It will carry us through this. The problem is that we became too dependent on oil revenue to balance our budget.”
The reduction of royalties the province receives from oil has led to an evaporation of government funds. “That’s left basically a $7 billion hole in our budget for the year coming up, and a $6 billion hole the year after that, and $5 billion year after year as far as the eye can see. We’ve had enough of this rollercoaster.”
He said the government has been consulting with Albertans about how to solve the financial crisis and what he has been hearing is that the government should take a, “Measured, balanced approach,” while avoiding slashing services. “The budget is not a single-year budget but it will also be a 10-year fiscal plan of how we manage this, how we get ourselves off the rollercoaster and how we do it in a way that is fair and balanced,” said Prentice.
“We are taking an approach that will be quite measured in terms of front-line services. We are actually making some improvements as a matter of fact.”
He said what he is also hearing from Albertans is they are wanting to be a part of the solution.
“We’ve heard back from folks,” he said. “You are going to see a government that not only asks Albertans to step up and solve this problem, but is also taking action to reduce waste.
“We are going to be more efficient as a government and we are going to take steps to diversify the economy. We are going to emerge from our current circumstances. We are going to come out tougher and stronger than when we went into it. But we need to stand together. That’s the real key.”
Prentice also stated the government is, “Well aware” of the need for the two schools in Blackfalds. He said the provincial government is also aware of the immense population growth pressures Blackfalds is facing, noting that it is one of the highest growth communities in the province.
He indicated the proposed regional wastewater line, planned from Lacombe to Red Deer, including Blackfalds, is an important project. Lacombe and Blackfalds have been experiencing over-capacity issues with the existing lines due to population growth.
“We know there has not been enough money put into the Water For Life program and so that’s something we are looking at. I think the question is whether we need interim solutions or given the circumstances that we are in, but we haven’t decided that yet.”