June 24th, 2024

Budget Day arrives in Alberta

By COLLIN GALLANT on February 28, 2023.

cgallant@medicinehatnews.com@CollinGallant

It’s Budget Day in Alberta with big money announcements predicted by all political parties.

Premier Danielle Smith told the News she plans on driving home promises to use a gush of royalty revenue toward controlling debt, infrastructure and affordability measures promised after she won the United Conservative Party leadership.

Her opponents say more targeted spending is required, and accuse Smith of delaying discussion on the true cost of promises – like provincial pension, police force and well-closure programs – until after this spring’s elections.

The MLA for Brooks-Medicine Hat, however, says Albertans are responding positively to government action since she took office.

Early in the fall, polls predicted a New Democrat majority government after the May 2023 election, but that has tightened with a number now predicting the UCP would hold a majority.

“I’m glad that we’re trending in the right direction because for two years we were trailing the NDP, and that’s one of the reasons we needed a leadership change,” Smith said.

“We had a lot of really great work that was started, but got interrupted by COVID, and now we’re continuing on with the mandate that we were given in 2019,” Smith told the News on Feb. 22.

“Albertans want us to keep jobs and the economy rolling, policing and public safety … The steps we’re taking are making an impact.”

Ahead of today’s budget announcement by Finance Minister Travis Toews (expected at 3:30 p.m.), opposition parties held their own press availability Monday as the government made several funding announcements.

New Democrat finance critic Shannon Phillips said she expects today’s budget will boost spending to “paper over” “mistakes” made by the UCP over the early term.

She said continued moves toward party priorities, provincial pension, a provincial police force, and a royalty funded pilot program to reward inactive well closures, likely won’t be detailed in the budget, but should be major election issues.

“The UCP have not levelled with Albertans and that will only get worse under this government,” said Phillips, who added the surplus should be used to shore up health and education spending as well as focusing on economic diversification efforts.

“Smith has been hiding from Albertans.”

Former UCP MLA and now independent Drew Barnes (Cypress-Medicine Hat) has stated the surplus should used to bring tax relief and has long-lobbied for raising personal tax exemptions and eliminating the small business tax completely.

“I expect to continue to see the Smith government flounder,” said Barnes, a vocal critic from the right of a $100 million pilot program to subsidize well closures.

“We’ve seen dribs and drabs of money announced without any focus on effectiveness ahead of what we expect is an election budget. A better election budget would be to give tax relief to Alberta families.”

In 2020 the UCP lowered the corporate tax rate to 8 per cent as part of its “Job Creation Tax Cut,” but businesses with earnings less than $500,000 currently pay 2 per cent on that amount.

A mid-year fiscal update from the provincial treasury predicted a surplus in excess of $12.3 billion in the fiscal year ending this March. That is largely due to high oil prices, but even with moderate energy prices the province will benefit as royalty rate subsidies on oilsands projects expire.

Alberta Party Leader Barry Morishita, who competed in the Brooks-Medicine Hat byelection last fall, said he expects a number of big dollar announcements from the UCP.

“I imagine there will be a lot of money pushed around and a lot of announcements made in order to shore up the UCP electoral opportunities,” he said.

“We’ve seen some come out before the budget, which is unheard of in a way, and I expect more of the same.

“We hear there’s more money for health care, but what’s the target and what’s the outcome?”

On the regional infrastructure front, Smith announced studies in the fall to examine all potential phases of Highway 3 twinning, and more recently regional politicians have requested more money to make up shortfalls in Horsefly Spillway budgets near Taber.

The province has already stated it will move to a new municipal infrastructure grant funding model beginning in 2024.

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