A former NDP finance minister from Saskatchewan is heading a panel of financial experts in Alberta to review what Premier Jason Kenney calls a deep fiscal hole.
The group led by Janice MacKinnon is to come up with a plan by Aug. 15 to get Alberta out of deficit, Kenney said Tuesday.
“As promised in our platform, we recruited an independent, non-partisan group of experts to conduct a deep dive into Alberta’s fiscal situation,” Kenney said.
“This panel is tasked with recommending a path to a balanced budget without raising taxes, as is our commitment to Albertans, by the year 2022-23.”
Kenney’s United Conservatives defeated Rachel Notley’s NDP in last month’s provincial election.
A budget wasn’t tabled in March because of the campaign. Kenney said the group’s recommendations will help make up the budget in the fall.
“Total debt was barrelling towards $100 billion, fuelled by the second-highest per capita spending of any province in Canada,” he said.
“Albertans understand that, in the long run, debt cripples our ability to provide high-quality public services, and that’s why they gave this government a strong mandate to change course.”
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In the province’s last fiscal update, then-finance minister Joe Ceci projected a deficit of $6.9 billion for the 2018-2019 fiscal year — down from the $8.8 billion in his financial blueprint last March.
Forecasts in February totalled revenue at almost $50 billion and total expenses at just over $56 billion. Debt was pegged at $56.8 billion and projected to rise to $95 billion by 2024.
MacKinnon was finance minister in the 1990s under former Saskatchewan NDP premier Roy Romanow and went on to advise several other governments on their fiscal plans. She said Alberta’s focus shouldn’t be on taxes, but on growing the economy and getting the deficit under control.
“I actually faced the prospect of [Saskatchewan] going into bankruptcy because for years governments ignored the warning signs of mounting debt and deficits, and they failed to act,” she said.
MacKinnon called Alberta a big-spending province, but said that hasn’t translated into better public services.
“Even if the budget was balanced, I would look at the spending… because a lot of money is being spent in a lot of areas and you are not getting the outcomes. You are not getting the results.”
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The NDP said Kenney is using the panel to “pass the buck” for future cuts.
Deron Bilous, member of the legislature for Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview, said there is no way Kenney’s government can balance the budget by 2022 while cutting corporate taxes and without slashing public services.
“They are now bringing in an outside panel to, quite frankly, justify what we feel are likely cuts that are going to be coming very, very soon,” Bilous said.
The panel, which also includes former ATB Financial president Dave Mowat and former University of Alberta dean of business Mike Percy, is to make its report public shortly after it is submitted to the government, Finance Minister Travis Toews said.
The other panel members are Kim Henderson, a former deputy minister to the premier, cabinet secretary and head of the public service for British Columbia; Bev Dahlby, a research director at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary; and Jay Ramotar, who held several deputy minister postings with the Alberta government, including Service Alberta and the treasury board.