By Trevor Busch
Still optimistic despite increasing signs of a global economic slow-down, Taber-Warner MLA Grant Hunter believes his government’s recent 2020 budget still provides the tools for the province to push forward with deficit reduction and economic recovery.
“I think that it’s an extension of the hard work that we did in 2019, to be able to put together a credible path forward to getting Alberta out of the deficit territory,” said Hunter, who also serves as associate minister of Red Tape Reduction. “I think we have a very strong case to be able to put forward to Albertans, not just getting us out of debt but also trying to make sure that we get Albertans back to work. We have a blueprint for jobs, and if you take a look at the budget, you’ll see that we are focused specifically — laser focused, in fact — on getting Albertans back to work. That’s what this whole budget was created for, and there’s some good stuff for Taber and area. We have actually some of the lowest unemployment rates down there, but if there’s one person out of work that’s still one too many.”
With oil prices in free fall due to the global economic impacts of the COVID-19 outbreak, original projections for the UCP’s 2020 provincial budget — based on oil climbing to a $58 per barrel threshold — is now being deeply impacted by a perfect storm beyond the province’s control. Oil prices tumbled to around $30 per barrel on world markets on Monday, a far cry from UCP estimates when the budget was tabled in late February.
Despite these impacts, Hunter talked about a projected reduction in the deficit to $6.8 billion based on revenues of $50 billion. The budget deficit for the 2019-20 year is $7.5 billion, less than the $8.7 billion that was originally forecast.
“We had to take into consideration a lot of factors, and as we went forward, I think we just took a very balanced approach, which again is what you saw in 2019,” said Hunter. “As I’ve talked to a lot of our constituent members in Taber-Warner, this is what I’ve heard from them most: they’re quite happy with the balanced, reasoned approach that we took to trying to get ourselves out of debt. That’s exactly what we tried to do with this budget, is try to be able to tighten our belt, as most Albertans have been asked to tighten their belts. We’ve taken the same approach in government in trying to make sure that where we’re trying to find efficiencies, we’re finding efficiencies, but we’re still trying to provide the proper wrap-around services in health and education, and all the services that we provide. I think you have to do a shout-out to everyone in government. I think it was a fantastic effort by all departments, by all ministers, and especially by the premier, to be laser focused on making sure we get out of this spending on the credit card. Albertans don’t want that, they don’t like to see it, it robs future generations of the prospects for a bright future.”
Funding is being maintained for core services, with $8.2 billion for kindergarten to Grade 12 school education and $20.6 billion for health.
Municipally, taxpayers are bracing for a roughly 3.4 per cent increase in education property taxes, which Hunter characterized as a standard practice for provincial governments.
“Basically the increase that Albertans will see is about three per cent, and that is basically inflation plus population growth. This is actually the standard practice. I know the NDP are lighting their hair on fire on this one, which is quite hypocritical of them because I think that in 2016 they raised it seven per cent. So I think it’s interesting that they would call us out for increasing by inflation plus population — which is again standard practice — when one year they actually increased it by seven per cent.”
The province’s three-year capital plan maintains commitments to the Calgary Cancer Centre, renovations to the Peter Lougheed Centre, and funding for major light rail transit projects in Edmonton and Calgary, among other big-ticket projects.
“We’re spending $19.3 billion over three years, and one of the things that we really tried to focus on is if we’re going to spend money on capital projects, you need to make sure that those capital projects are going to net us jobs,” said Hunter. “Obviously if you’ve got a potato plant that’s being built, you need to make sure that you have the infrastructure so that the trucks can get the potatoes to the plant. And then when you’ve got products, like agri-food products, that they can get to market. Whatever we build — and we do have to make sure that we build capital projects — that those projects are directly linked with growth in creating jobs.”
Total debt is expected to be $68 billion 2020, and is projected to rise to $77 billion by the end of March 2021. As for impacts in the riding area, Hunter maintains his government is taking a broad-based approach to the ills impacting the province’s finances and the general economic situation to achieve outcomes that will benefit all Albertans.
“From the provincial perspective, we are trying to make sure that whatever broad-based economic strategy that we have can affect Taber just as much as it can affect Fort MacMurray. We don’t know where the next big boom is going to be, where the next big agri-food business is going to be, so we’re not focusing on boutique tax credits or anything like that, we’re trying to focus on broad-based tax strategy that makes us the best place to be able to start a business, come to Alberta, we’re ready to go. I think that Taber, Coaldale and all of the different communities in my riding, Taber-Warner, have a great story to tell. We’ve got excellent heat units down there, we’ve got some fantastic irrigation systems — some of the best in the world — so we’ve got a lot to offer down there. We’re just making sure that whatever the government does, that we have the proper infrastructure, so that whatever we create down in our riding has the ability to get to wherever it’s going, market or plant. We have to make sure that we have public infrastructure.”
While much recent news on the economic front has been drifting into the negative almost from the outset of 2020, and is now being strongly impacted by global fears around the COVID-19 epidemic, Hunter is still positive about the direction of his government and what this will mean for Albertans in the long term.
“We’re laser focused on job creation. This has been a tough go for Albertans, and we’re not used to that. We’re not used to having high unemployment in Alberta. We’re used to being the place where you can go and fulfill a great dream of starting a business, or having a good paying job — this is what Alberta was before, and we want to get back to that winning formula. So I think that with this budget that’s what Albertans will see.”