Speculation about the upcoming provincial budget has turned to anxiety for some central Alberta groups after a panel found per capita spending in this province is the highest in Canada.
A panel ordered by Premier Jason Kenney to look into Alberta’s finances says the province regularly overspends on the services it delivers.
Among its 26 recommendations are reviews of health care and education spending, and also addressing high incomes for doctors, lowering administrative costs in schools, and requiring universities to get more of their funding through tuition.
Kyle Johnston, president of the Red Deer and District Labour Council, sees the panel’s recommendations as a “gross attack” on many groups, including public-sector employees and Alberta students, who would be burdened by more loans if tuition freezes are lifted.
Johnston criticized Kenney for pulling together what he described as an ideologically driven panel.
He believes the government is trying to sidestep the collective bargaining process by recommending more back-to-work legislation and by casting doubt on the need for all of Alberta’s hospitals and universities.
“I can see a loss of more jobs,” particularly in health care and education, he said, at a time when Alberta is already suffering economically and when corporations received a $4.5-billion provincial tax cut.
The Alberta government would do better to pass the long-awaited provincial budget, said Johnston, who believes this delay is leaving schools, hospitals and communities in the lurch.
The panel was chaired by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon. It concluded that Alberta’s annual expenditures would be $10.4 billion less if the province were to spend the same per person as in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.
It found that if Alberta matched the other provinces, we would have a $3.7-billion surplus this year, instead of a $6.7-billion deficit.
Red Deer & District Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick More sees no surprises in these conclusions, considering the province’s debt has been growing yearly.
“There will be some pains” in the short-term with a tighter provincial budget, said More, but he believes there would also be consequences in letting the deficit inflate.
While cuts to education and health care will be unpopular, if other provinces are getting good results with less spending, then maybe it’s time for Alberta to also get the most out of what it delivers, he added.
“Maybe there’s a way to be more efficient without cutting all the capital projects.”
More noted the chamber of commerce continues to support a Red Deer hospital expansion and the addition of a cardiac catheterization laboratory to prevent heart-attack deaths that happen when people are sent to Calgary or Edmonton for this procedure.
Red Deer City Coun. Ken Johnston is also concerned about the future of the hospital project and hopes the cardiac catheterization lab gets approved — at the very least.
He admitted a lot of concern exists about what capital funding will be received from the province, and what a reduction will mean for road projects, utility plant upgrades and other “need-to-have” projects.
Most municipalities are already very careful about spending public money, added Johnston, who cautioned that a steep spending cut will cause a wide infrastructure deficit a few years down the road.
Red Deer Public School Board Chair Nicole Buchanan hopes, if there are educational reductions, that they don’t affect dollars needed for classrooms.
Buchanan said Kenny already indicated there would be no change to the per-pupil grants.
“We’re anxiously awaiting the upcoming provincial budget,” she added, to see what it will do for the next generation of Albertans.