Opposition parties reacted swiftly to the Alberta NDP government’s 2017 budget presented on Thursday which projects a $10.3-billion deficit this year on revenue of $45 billion. While the budget will see Alberta go further into the red during already difficult economic times, it also promises a hospital, new schools and more money for seniors and social services.
The Wildrose official opposition referred to the budget as “a debt-fueled disaster packed with higher taxes and more of the same economic policies that will cost families and hurt Alberta’s prosperity for generations to come.”
“The budget is a balance-sheet meltdown and mortgages Alberta’s future as it racks up a $71-billion debt by 2019-20 that will cost Albertans $2.3 billion in annual interest payments,” the party said in a statement. “Those interest payments are taxpayers’ money that will go straight to the banks and not towards hospitals, schools, teachers or nurses.
“By 2019-20, it will cost $16,049 for every Albertan to pay their share of the debt. Borrowing this year is nearly one quarter of the total budget.”
The Wildrose also said the NDP was exceeding its own “debt-ceiling” legislation of not allowing debt to be more than 15 per cent of GDP and said Alberta’s debt-to-GDP ratio is forecast to go over 20 per cent.
“This is an NDP budget fantasy stuffed with more of the same economic experiments that have failed Alberta for two years straight,” Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said in a statement. “The NDP remain completely out of touch with life for real Albertans who are suffering today.”
“Let’s be clear, when we look at the projected revenue numbers that this government has brought forward, they simply are not realistic,” he added. “Some of the increases in our commodity prices that they expect to have over the next three to four years are, in my opinion, just hopeful thinking.”
“The NDP government is passing the bill onto our children to pay for a spending-bender that will leave us with $71 billion of debt before the next election,” Wildrose finance critic Derek Fildebrandt said in a statement. “This neglect of even basic fiscal controls and recklessness with borrowed money will take generations to recover from.”
“What we see here is the largest intergenerational transfer of debt in the history of Alberta,” Interim Progressive Conservative leader Ric McIver said. “The children and grandchildren of this province will have to clean up the mess that this government is making.”
“I don’t know what game they’re playing,” Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark said of the NDP’s budget. “I guess they’re just trying to get to 2019, crossing their fingers and hoping oil goes up.”
READ MORE: Alberta budget 2017: Winners and losers
The mayors of Alberta’s two largest cities have long lobbied for more funding for municipalities to help pay for affordable housing initiatives, infrastructure and public transit improvements.
“This provincial budget is encouraging news for Edmonton,” Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said in a Facebook post in reaction to the budget. “I’m pleased to see some investment in affordable housing, health care and infrastructure. Still need specifics on funding LRT. Bonus – looks like positive news on a new rail bridge for 50th street trains!”
“I wasn’t really expecting much from this budget given the fiscal situation with the province,” Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said. “I had some high hopes, clearly the high hopes were not met.”
“There was one nice thing in there which is we’re pleased to see the government is moving forward with funding for the Deerfoot Trail and 212 Avenue South interchange, that actually will really help us ease congestion in deep southeast Calgary as well as open up a little bit more land for development there.”
Nenshi added he was pleased the NDP appeared to be committed to working with Calgary and Ottawa on the completion of Airport Trail in Alberta’s largest city. He also said he was pleased to see considerable dollars from the carbon levy be earmarked for transit funding.
School boards and student advocates
The 2017 budget saw a number of investments in education, including a promise to increase funding to match enrolment, build 10 new schools and upgrade or replace another 16. School fees paid by parents are also being cut by $54 million.
“Edmonton Public Schools is pleased to see a steady commitment to education in this budget,” EPSB Chair Michelle Draper said in a statement. “Our student population continues to increase and today’s announcement acknowledges that, with a commitment to fund enrolment growth.
“We hope the infrastructure spending details next week will help address Edmonton Public Schools’ pressing need for new schools, replacement schools and school modernization.”
The Alberta School Boards Association (ASBA) said it “welcomes the Alberta government’s commitment to funding new student enrolment growth” but also voiced concern that per-student funding has not increased in the budget “and, in fact, has continued losing ground.”
“It’s great news that the government is investing in building new schools and renovating others, and providing funding for new students coming into the system,” ASBA President Mary Martin said in a statement. “However, overall instructional funding is being eroded because it has not kept up with inflation, forcing school boards to continue doing more with less. This is a chronic problem and needs to be addressed.”
“Overall, this budget reflects good news for students,” Dexter Bruneau, chair of the Council of Alberta University Students and vice-president external for the Students’ Association of Mount Royal University, said in a statement. “The government is demonstrating its commitment to the post-secondary sector and CAUS is content with the direction the government is taking.”
With a budget that pegs the deficit at $10.33 billion, it’s perhaps no surprise that some fiscally-conservative stakeholders in the business sphere did not react positively.
The Calgary Chamber said it was disappointed to see “fiscal discipline and additional support for innovation and entrepreneurship was not high on the agenda.”
“Hope is not a strategy,” Calgary Chamber CEO Adam Legge said in a statement. “Commitments to jobs and investments can’t be based on an environment of hope, they have to be based on an environment of certainty.”
“What businesses mainly want is for government to not make it any harder to survive in these challenging times and this budget shows us there is clearly no plan to make it easier.”
The Calgary Chamber did, however, say it was “heartening” to see the NDP keep operating expenditure increases to less than population growth plus inflation.
The budget sees operational spending growing by about 2.2 per cent.
The Edmonton Chamber of Commerce criticized the province’s plan, pointing out it has “a massive deficit for the third year in a row.”
It urged the government to work with stakeholders to prioritize its programs and services and get Alberta back to balance.
“The small-business person going over her books at the kitchen table doesn’t have the luxury of waiting years to balance her budget,” said Janet Riopel, president and CEO of the Edmonton Chamber. “Her bank will lend to her if she has a plan, but she can’t borrow on her hopes for the future. She’s making tough decisions right now about spending, decisions that will affect families —her own and her employees’.”
The chamber also wants the province to negotiate government labour agreements up for renewal with a target of no staffing increases and zero per cent increases in salaries.
“The government needs to rein in its spending habits, just as business owners and their families are being forced to do,” Riopel said.
More to come…
-With files from The Canadian Press, Caley Ramsay and Tom Vernon.