Political opponents and other stakeholders were quick to react to Alberta’s 2018 budget, which was tabled on Thursday. In it, the government committed spending to public transportation in Calgary and Edmonton, a number of education initiatives and a promise to balance the books in five years.
Finance Minister Joe Ceci said the province’s current deficit sits at $8.8 billion on revenue of $47.9 billion. He forecasted it will fall to $7.9 billion, then to $7 billion, down to $4.3 billion, then $4.1 billion and finally to a $700-million surplus by spring 2024.
Alberta’s official Opposition was quick to criticize the 2018 NDP budget tabled on Thursday, with United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney calling Ceci a “virtual” finance minister.
“Today, the NDP handed down another ‘virtual reality’ budget, drowning Albertans in a sea of red ink and imposing numerous increased costs for Albertans,” Kenney said in a statement.
“Hidden from Albertans in this budget is a 67 per cent hike to the Trudeau-NDP carbon tax, just like it was hidden from Albertans in the last election.”
He went on to criticize deficit, which sits at $8.8 billion, despite the NDP having promised a $25-million surplus by 2018.
“By 2023-34, the year the NDP is promising a return to balance, Alberta will have $96 billion in total debt,” Kenney said. “The NDP will have increased Alberta’s debt by a massive 638 per cent versus what they inherited.”
WATCH: Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney says the NDP is dragging Alberta deeper into a debt trap.
UCP Finance Critic Drew Barnes suggested the NDP government has increased spending by 16 per cent since assuming office and called Ceci’s claims the budget would be balanced in five years “unrealistic.”
“While the minister appears lost in his own virtual reality, the fact is that the NDP is hurling our province over the fiscal cliff,” he said.
WATCH: Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney reacts to the Alberta NDP’s plan to increase the carbon tax.
The Alberta Liberals were also critical of Thursday’s budget, saying the government is “spending away the future of Albertans, their children and grandchildren.”
“The NDP is spending without corresponding revenue and spending on the wrong things,” leader David Kahn said in a statement.
“The NDP is doubling down on our volatile oil and gas sector with corporate welfare such as the announced billion-dollar partial upgrader boondoggle and the Energy Diversification Act. Many Albertans are being left behind as the debt skyrockets ahead.”
WATCH: Watch above for analysis of the NDP’s 2018 budget from our expert panel, made up of Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt and 770 CHQR host Danielle Smith.
Liberal MLA Dr. David Swann went on to say that in addition to maintaining debt, the province is also spending almost $2 million a year in interest on that debt.
“How many schools would that pay for? How many nurses would that hire? How many services could that have provided to the citizens of this province?” he said.
Kahn said the government is “gambling on hypothetical revenue” from the Trans Mountain pipeline project to balance the budget in the next five years.
“You can’t take phantom revenue to the bank and spend it. We must reform our tax system to pay for the services Albertans need today,” he said. “Albertans deserve a sensible financial plan, not an uncontrolled plunge into staggering debt.”
Edmonton’s mayor said while the city is disappointed to see a decrease in Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding, he expects “the revenue-sharing deal mentioned in the budget speech will mean Edmonton can fully participate in the future of Alberta’s economy.”
“Alberta’s future is in high tech, health innovation and adding more value on our oil and gas, food and forestry products — industries that rely on a strong Edmonton Metro region,” Mayor Don Iveson said in a statement.
READ MORE: Highlights from Alberta Budget 2018
Iveson’s office also told Global News it had received a verbal commitment of $1.5 billion for Edmonton’s LRT system, saying it allows the city to move forward with initiatives like the West LRT project.
“This means the Government of Alberta recognizes the importance of public transit in building a prosperous city,” Iveson said. “Today’s commitment is equal to the one made previously to Calgary’s Green Line — and this matching approach is one we want to see repeated in future infrastructure investments.”
WATCH: Alberta Opposition Leader Jason Kenney says the NDP’s handling of the Calgary Green Line LRT project is the greatest example of “fiscal incompetence.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi echoed Iveson’s disappointment regarding the cuts to the MSI programs, but welcomed the increase in funding for affordable housing in Calgary.
“We’re going to have to crunch the numbers on this one and make sure that increase will help us both keep people in homes and not shutter units, and not force the Calgary Housing Company to transition units back to the province that we just can’t afford anymore,” he said.
WATCH: Global’s Bindu Suri has reaction from Calgary stakeholders to the 2018 Alberta budget.
Nenshi said he’s not surprised there was no mention of a funding commitment for the city’s potential bid to host the 2026 Olympic and Paralympic Games.
“I continue to be very confident that both the federal and provincial government will come to the table to help fund this bid. If they won’t, council said we’re going to stop work. I suspect they will,” Nenshi said.
He added he was hoping to get an update on cannabis funding to municipalities, saying the city needs commitment on that “very, very, very soon.”
School boards and student advocates
Alberta’s teachers’ union said the budget “will not do enough to address concerns about class size, undersupported special needs and growing costs.”
“Albertans will appreciate the government’s commitment to funding enrolment growth, building new schools and tackling student hunger,” Alberta Teachers’ Association president Greg Jeffrey said in an emailed statement.
“But this budget does not do enough to help teachers deal with large class sizes or support students with special learning needs. Base grants have only received one small increase in seven years, and school boards are struggling to keep up with inflationary pressure.”
WATCH: Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci announces $400 million towards new schools, teachers and support workers.
The Calgary Board of Education (CBE) said it is encouraged by Thursday’s budget, adding it’s clear the government is making education a priority.
“We are grateful to be funded for growth and to know that the approximately 2,000 new students we will welcome next year will be funded,” the CBE said in a release.
“However, we will continue to be challenged with inflationary pressures, the cost of operating our new schools, our modest reserve levels and balancing parent expectations within available resources.”
The CBE said it will develop a detailed budget in the coming weeks when it receives actual funding rates.
The University of Calgary applauded the government’s commitment to post-secondary education, saying “stable and predictable funding is critical to providing access to quality education for students, enabling them to become leaders in our community.”
The university said the funding will allow for expansion of emerging sectors like clean technology, health innovation and life sciences.
“Creating these new spaces will allow UCalgary to build on existing programs, and create new ones, to educate and retrain the talented, nimble workforce we need in an increasingly diversified economy,” university president and vice-chancellor Elizabeth Cannon said. “Universities have a critical role to play in developing talent to support diversification and growth in Alberta.”