Premier Jason Kenney says he will unveil in early September the findings of a government-appointed panel making recommendations that will drive the United Conservative’s first budget.
But Kenney says he expects the panel, chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, will report that Alberta’s economy is spiralling down.
“You’ll see the evidence of this, I’m quite confident, in the MacKinnon panel, that there has been a serious deterioration in the province’s finances,” Kenney said Wednesday at a news conference to mark his UCP’s first 100 days in office.
“We’re going to have to go through a period of fiscal responsibility.”
MacKinnon’s panel is to deliver its report next week, but Kenney said his officials will need some time until after Labour Day to craft a response.
It will be a critical and controversial report.
Kenney has said it will be used as the foundation for decisions on their first budget, set for October, as a first step to erasing multibllion-dollar budget deficits over four years.
The Opposition NDP says the report will be a sham piece of predetermined political theatre to give Kenney cover when he introduces wage cuts or job cuts — or both — to public sector workers this fall.
Kenney addressed public sector salaries in February, in the lead-up to his party’s successful win in the April election.
At the time, he said he and his caucus members would take a pay cut to show leadership, but not as a symbolic first step toward doing the same to public sector workers’ salaries.
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This week, an all-party legislature committee followed through on that promise, at Kenney’s behest, to cut all MLA salaries by five per cent and Kenney’s by 10.
On Wednesday, Kenney acknowledged his pre-campaign pledge on public sector salaries, but said things have changed.
“It has, however, become clear, since we came to office, that the fiscal situation of the province is much worse than the NDP told us,” he said.
“They were trying to wish their way out of the deficit by over-projecting revenues.”
Kenney said the best thing his government can do to preserve public sector jobs and wages is to grow the economy to erase the deficit and slow down the growth of Alberta’s debt, which is at $57 billion and projected to rise to $95 billion by 2024.
NDP house leader Deron Bilous rejected Kenney’s assertion that the NDP made things worse. He noted that the 2018-19 budget, the last under the NDP, finished with a deficit of $6.7 billion, which was $2.1 billion less than first projected.
“There couldn’t be a statement (from the premier) further from the truth,” said Bilous.
He said Kenney’s government is making Alberta’s fragile economic recovery worse. He said a corporate income tax cut passed this spring has led to higher industry profits at the expense of billions of dollars in lost government revenue and no extra promised jobs.
At the same time, he said, the UCP is stalling tax incentive programs brought in under the NDP to grow and diversify jobs, particularly in high tech, outside the oil and gas sector.
Kenney is already battling in court with public sector unions that represent 180,000 workers, including nurses, teachers, paramedics, and sheriffs, after his government passed a bill in June rewriting collective bargaining agreements to delay wage negotiations and arbitration.
Unions say they are bracing for rollbacks this fall, and Bilous agreed.
“It’s pretty clear that we’re going to see a full-frontal attack on the public sector,” he said.