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Breaking down the Alberta budget: a closer look at areas affected

The Alberta legislature.

EDMONTON – It’s being touted as a budget of “responsible change,” and it brings with it some austerity measures that some are finding to be a hard pill to swallow. Here’s a closer look at what Alberta’s 2013 budget will mean for key sectors, and how different groups are reacting to the changes.

Health 

$17.1 billion will be going towards health in the 2013-14 budget, a nearly $500 million or three percent increase over last year. That will make up 45 percent of the government’s operational budget in 2013-14.

Health officials claim that still isn’t enough.

“The three percent increase that this government has assigned to healthcare…will basically be just to keep our heads afloat,” says Elisabeth Ballerman, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta (HSAA). “It just doesn’t make sense that we’re cutting corners and haven’t been addressing the core root of the problems in our health care system.”

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She is worried about the cuts to hospital buildings – such as the suspension of phase two of the Strathcona County hospital – as well as staffing.

Of the $17.1 billion being given to the health sector, $3.44 billion will be going to physicians. However, there is no amount built in for any salary increases, which is the same for the entire public sector.

While the government says it believes AHS can use its resources more effectively while still improving Albertans’ access to health care, Ballerman calls the government’s financial planning “mismanagement.”

She’s worried about the quality of care doctors will be able to provide given the funding, which she believes is not going to be able to sustain Alberta’s health care needs.

“When you have less people providing front line services, it impacts everybody who’s going to be going through the system.”

The chair of the AHS board, Stephen Lockwood, says the board is looking at several options after getting a smaller than expected increase.

Other changes Albertans can expect to see will be at local pharmacies. In addition to lower generic drug prices, a new comprehensive drug and supplementary health benefit coverage – PharmaCare – will be implemented beginning January 1, 2014 to ensure all Albertans have drug coverage.

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As well, those with Type 1 diabetes who meet certain eligibility criteria will now be given 100 percent coverage for insulin pumps.

Education

Post secondary education

Alberta’s post secondary institutions will receive $2 billion in base operating grants, which is a $147 million decrease from last year. However, the government maintains it is still one of the highest rates of per capita funding in Canada and that it has no plans to increase tuition.

Students will be able to benefit from a 21 percent increase in money available for student loans, as well as a $250,000 boost to the province’s scholarship program. There will also be a new grant available for low-income students.

There will be less money, though, to be spent on research and innovation in the province.

All in all, University of Alberta President Indira Samarasekera, says the reductions are significant.

“For example, we wanted to give students an undergraduate research experience, we wanted to give students the opportunity to travel abroad, we want to give students a community service learning experience. All of those things require investment. We’re going to have to scale back those kinds of experiences that are critical to that student future skill set.”

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“I’m surprised, I’m disappointed, I’m sort of sad to see that while the rest of the world understands that post secondary education is the future key to an individual’s success, they’ve chosen to not only not invest, but to even hold the line on the expenses.”

One student association goes so far as to say “this is the biggest cut to post-secondary education in 20 years.”

Meanwhile, students who are employed through the Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) will need to look for work elsewhere since the program is being cut, saving the government $7.4 million dollars.

K-12

The government is allotting $500 million to 50 new schools, however, no money is being set aside to hire new teachers. The announcement of where the new schools will be built, though, won’t come until sometime this spring.

“Some of the problems I see,” says Jaqui Hansen, president of the Alberta School Boards Association, “is that we’re going to have to do some contractions right away. As of April 1st, we’re no longer going to receive funding for Alberta school improvement, or for compensation we’re given when fuel costs go up; and that alone will cost our district $3 million for the remainder of the school year.”

“Moving forward,” Hansen adds, “money that we get for maintaining our buildings already isn’t adequate, and that’s going to be cut further.”

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She says the Association will try its best to minimize the impact on children while stretching every dollar as far as possible.

“We’re going to have to be creative to try to maintain the top education system we have with less money, and it’s not going to be easy.”

Seniors

Big changes are also on the way for seniors, particularly those who are new to the country. Up until now, any senior could qualify for the Alberta Seniors Benefit Program. Now, they will need to have lived in Canada for ten years before they can qualify. 3,000 seniors are expected to be affected by this measure.

Another change impacting seniors is the way their income will be calculated for the Benefits. Alimony payments, workers compensation benefits, and Canada Pension plan disability money will now be included in the income calculation. That will affect about 6,000 seniors

Both changes are expected to save the province $9 million each year.

Bill Moore-Kilgannon, the Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta, expressed how disturbed he is by the cuts.

“Seniors are on incredibly tight fixed incomes,” he says, “and to have them in a situation where they’re cutting back on those seniors who are in very, very tight situations, in order to get some benefits, frankly, they’ve paid their whole life for – in terms of taxes – why are they being cut out now? Why is the budget being balanced on their backs?”

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Infrastructure

Perhaps one of the biggest blows to infrastructure projects involves Highway 881.

Back in October, the province made a $158 million commitment to construct passing lanes, as well as a rest area on the busy stretch of highway. However, it has not made room for that promise in the 2013-14 budget. The government says it will be focusing on Highway 63 for the time-being.

North Darling, Vice President of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, says that while the AUMA expected a hard budget, the hits to the transportation area are a big problem.

“$5 million hit on policing, $95 million hit on water and sewer, $98 million hit on transportation, roughly $200 million total,” he says. “From municipalities’ perspective, $100 million cuts in transportation, what does that mean? Well that’s the money that goes to fix the pot holes that are pounding your car, upgrade your roads, and keep your sidewalks safe for people to walk on.”

There are also no additional funds set aside for Edmonton’s downtown arena. The province has been saying Edmonton will have MSI funds to use on the arena, if it so wishes.

Edmonton’s mayor Stephen Mandel says the city has already spent all its MSI money for the next few years, though.

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“We’ve always said we don’t need the money this year,” he adds. “We just need the assurances that a program will be in place at some point in time.”

And Mandel claims that he has previously received assurance from members of the government that the money will be there.

“The devil’s in the details, and so we’ll have to wait for those to come out,” he says. “But, I need to reiterate that I have been reassured, time and time again, that the issue of the arena…will be dealt with in this fiscal year.”

MSI  (Municipal Sustainability Initiative)

Edmonton will be receiving $170 million in MSI dollars this year, and Calgary will get $254 million. Both are comparable to last year’s figures.

The big change to MSI is that it was supposed to end in 2016-17. Now, there is no longer an end date, which means the province could spread out the amounts municipalities receive over a longer period of time.

“We’re not ramping up as quickly as we wanted to,” admits Doug Griffiths, Minister of Municipal Affairs, “so it will be spread out. But I still hope that as the economy continues to be strong, that we break the cycle of the bitumen bubble and are able to get our resources east, west and south…and we’ll be able to increase the funding that goes to municipalities. But right now, we need to be incredibly prudent and live within our means.”

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