Alberta’s budget for the upcoming year has cleared the legislature, despite pleas from the Opposition to nix it.
If the United Conservative Party government sticks to its spending plan, and oil prices remain above $70 US/bbl on average, the province could have its first balanced budget in eight years.
“It’s no secret that we inherited the highest-spending government of any across the nation,” Finance Minister Travis Toews said in the legislature on Thursday. “And over the last three years, we have worked hard, across ministries, across government, to make responsible, surgical, thoughtful decisions to deliver more value for Alberta taxpayers.”
The $62-billion budget includes a planned 2.7 per cent increase in health-care spending to help expand home care and continuing care options and tackle a backlog of surgeries worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The government wants to contract more private surgical centres and they say this could help reduce wait times.
Schools will get a slight bump in base funding — but critics say it’s not enough to keep up with inflation and growing K-12 student enrolment.
Despite a 2019 promise that a freeze on tax brackets was only temporary, those limits will remain the same next year, even as inflation pummels citizens’ wallets.
The Opposition NDP tagged the fiscal plan a “no-help budget,” saying a future pledge of a natural gas rebate — and only if prices go higher — does nothing to improve affordability.
Investments in health, education, justice and social services are still too meagre, they say. Income support program benefits for people with disabilities or who are unable to work have also remained frozen while inflation drives up costs.
In the legislature, NDP education critic Sarah Hoffman has repeatedly critiqued the $251-million school infrastructure budget, saying the 15 projects the government chose to fund ignores rapidly growing neighbourhoods in Edmonton and Calgary and aging, outdated buildings in urban centres.
On Thursday, Hoffman urged disenchanted UCP backbenchers to vote against their government’s own budget.
“This is a question of whether or not they have the confidence to stand up against the premier,” she said.
Only NDP MLAs cast their votes in opposition, and the budget passed, 48-to-9, on Thursday afternoon. Premier Jason Kenney, NDP Leader Rachel Notley, and the three independent MLAs were absent for the final vote.
A temporary cancellation of the provincial gas tax, which takes effect April 1, was not factored into the budget.
Toews said he toured the province after the Feb. 24 budget day and heard positive feedback about his government’s plan.
While heading into the legislature Thursday, government house leader and Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon said he was enthused about voting for a budget that pledges to balance the books.
Said Nixon: “We’ve restored all the jobs that have been lost by the NDP, and I assure you, we’re going to do everything we can to ensure that the NDP don’t form government again and destroy the province.”
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