Reaction and condemnation of the Alberta UCP’s first provincial budget was swift on Thursday, with groups representing taxpayers, teachers and two mayors saying it falls short.
City mayors angered over ‘broken promises’
Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson said the budget was filled with “broken promises,” saying immediately after hearing details of the budget, he cancelled a planned trip to Holland he was due to take on Thursday afternoon.
“Frankly as mayor of Edmonton and on behalf of Edmontonians, I’m disappointed to see that the Government of Alberta has ripped up the city charter fiscal framework,” Iveson told reporters at Edmonton International Airport after cancelling his flight.
“As mayor, I need to be part of the conversation in our city over the next several days about this broken promise, the implications of all of the cuts to our city and our infrastructure programs,” Iveson said.
“Some of which will hit projects that are already underway, like the Stadium LRT station — the funding is gone to rehabilitate that. Some of the funding for the Terwillegar Drive widening is now gone as well.”
Iveson said the city will likely have to cancel projects, which will come at a cost, and increase debt, meaning interest payments from the government will wind up stressing the wallets of property taxpayers.
“All unacceptable choices that our city now faces,” Iveson said. “I’m considering calling a special council meeting as well for us to deal with this in the coming days.”
Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi echoed Iveson’s comments and referred back to a promise the UCP made as part of the Calgary Matters survey distributed this spring ahead of the provincial election.
Nenshi read from a piece of paper that had a statement from the province vowing to respect the City Charter Fiscal Framework Act, before crumpling it up and throwing it away.
“That’s a black and white promise,” Nenshi said. “And that’s a promise broken. They are not respecting that long-term fiscal framework, which Calgarians relied on when they voted for the UCP and they said they would.”
Nenshi said both Calgary and Edmonton are now subject to further funding cuts of about nine per cent despite having already taken a 40 per cent funding cut as part of the existing fiscal framework.
“Calgary and Edmonton are being singled out despite our desperate need for roads, bridges and social infrastructure. We’re being singled out to take a much larger cut than every other municipality in the province,” Nenshi said.
Nenshi said the future of the Green Line LRT expansion is “in jeopardy” in light of a timeline change in provincial funding for the transportation mega-project.
“The cut to the Green Line funding – and don’t make a mistake — lengthening out the amount of time you pay is a cut because it requires a lot more interest payments… I don’t know how you complete the Green Line on time,” Nenshi said.
He said the Green Line expansion project is an important part of Calgary’s economic stimulation and was projected to create 20,000 jobs in construction in the city.
“The timing is in jeopardy is very much in jeopardy,” Nenshi said. “Because the timing is in jeopardy, if you’re the federal government putting $1.5 billion in, maybe you’re going to re-think the flows on your cash, I don’t think it’s too much to say the project itself is in jeopardy.”
In addition to uncertainty around the LRT expansion, Nenshi also said cuts to the regional funding infrastructure and long-term transit funding — which he called “a weird one” due to it being previously promised for 2027 — will impact the city’s ability to replace aging CTrain cars.
He said Calgary Transit’s U-2 train cars will have to stay in operation despite plans to take them out of commission, and in the future when the city can afford to buy new train cars, it will cost exponentially more to have them built.
However, Nenshi said there were some bright spots in the budget, including the province’s commitment to the city’s low-income transit pass program, mental health and addictions funding and the film tax credit.
He said he’s happy to see the policing grant maintained, but said issues in the formula set up could mean the city will have trouble hiring more officers in the future.
Budget will ‘make you pay more and get less’
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said Thursday that Premier Jason Kenney “effectively lied” when he said his government would increase or maintain spending on healthcare and education.
“There is $100 million less for nurses. There will be fewer doctors in rural communities. There will be a $90 million cut to drug coverage. They will kick at least 46,000 people off of the seniors’ drug plan. There’s an $11 million cut to ambulance services. And there’s less money for acute care hospitals,” Notley said in an address broadcast on Facebook Live.
She called that the tip of the iceberg.
“They are not funding enrollment over the next four years,” she said. “In particular, they are cutting funding for educational assistants who provide help for kids with disabilities and help for kids who are struggling with English language learning. They cut the funding for class size reduction and of course, they cut funding to help parents with ever-increasing school fees.”
Notley called the budget a “plan to make everyday Albertans pay for his government’s $4.5 billion, no-job handout to big corporations and the super-rich.”
“The premier said he would create jobs but we’re losing them — 27,000 jobs have been lost since this government first announced they were handing $4.5 billion over to big corporations,” she said. “And while people are losing their jobs in the private sector, this government is cutting employment and income supports by 20 per cent over the next four years.”
Notley said Albertans will be paying more for everything from tuition, user fees, licenses and registration, car insurance, electricity, school fees, municipal fees and more.
Budget ‘asks teachers to do more with less’
The Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) was quick to condemn the Alberta UCP’s first provincial budget on Thursday, saying “teachers will not be able to fill the gaps” that will come in its wake.
“This budget is, yet again, asking teachers to do more with less. The student population is expected to grow by 15,000 students, and school boards will not receive any more money to support them,” ATA president Jason Schilling said in a news release.
The association said the budget realities equate to about a two per cent cut, meaning school boards will see about $200 less per student than they did last year.
“The government is playing a shell game in order to trick us into thinking enrolment growth is being funded, but at the end of the day, school boards have less funding per student, which means larger classes, fewer supports for students and programming cuts,” Schilling said.
Schilling added that the cuts will be felt by everyone in the classroom and will mean some students will fall through the cracks.
“Class composition will continue to be a big problem and one-on-one attention suffers as a result,” he said. “The redirection of class size money means less accountability to keep class sizes small and school boards, underfunded for special needs by about $85 million, won’t be getting relief.
“If this government believes in inclusion, then they need to fund it better.”
‘Dark debt clouds’ hanging over future taxpayers
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) said the budget is “a step in the right direction,” but said the government needs to do more to get a hold on spending.
“This is a better budget than Albertans have seen in a long time, but taxpayers are being overcharged by billions of dollars every year and this budget doesn’t go nearly far enough to tackle the spending problem,” CTF Alberta director Franco Terrazzano said in a Thursday news release.
The CTF said if Alberta brought spending in line with provinces like British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, it would save $10 billion a year. Instead, the federation said the government is looking at increasing debt, reaching $71.8 billion in 2019 and expected to surpass $93 billion by 2022, which will also mean an increase in debt.
“There are still dark debt clouds hanging over the heads of future taxpayers,” Terrazzano said. “Albertans can’t afford to fork over billions of dollars to the bond fund managers on Bay Street just to pay interest on the government’s debt.
“The last thing Albertans need are tax hikes, especially sneaky tax hikes that hit families just because inflation bumps them into a new tax bracket. The government should have trimmed its own overspending instead of taking hundreds of millions of dollars from taxpayers and hoping they won’t notice.”
The Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) said the premier was “misleading Albertans when he claims he is only cutting 2.8 per cent” in the new budget.
“Today’s budget cuts will be much deeper than Kenney admits,” the AFL said. “With increases in the cost of living and population growth these cuts are much more likely to be around 15 per cent — very close to the level of the Klein cuts in the 90s.”
The federation went on to say Kenney “blew a huge hole in the budget” with corporate tax cuts and a $4.5-billion giveaway to profitable corporations.
“We’ve seen large corporations like Husky Energy cut hundreds of jobs after receiving a $233 million gift from the UCP,” the AFL said.
“Now the most vulnerable Albertans, like people on AISH, along with post-secondary students, public-sector workers and cities are being asked to pay for these corporate tax giveaways.”
The AFL said this budget risks putting Alberta into a “self-inflicted ‘Kenney recession’ that could be worse than the economic crisis caused by the drop in worldwide oil prices.”
“While previous recessions have been caused by external market forces that are largely beyond the control of the government of Alberta and independent of its policy choices, the hardship that will be caused by the Kenney government’s ill-considered deficit elimination strategy will be entirely self-inflicted,” AFL president Gil McGowan said.
“Kenney’s cuts are bad for the economy because to build a strong economy, we need modern infrastructure to keep our businesses moving. And we need top-quality health care and education to build and maintain a healthy, skilled workforce. A strong public sector is a vital part of our economy’s foundation.”