Alberta is suddenly awash in money for a variety of public projects and programs.
Should we be suspicious or thankful?
A little of both, actually.
In the last few weeks, government funding has been announced on a number of fronts. Most are worthy — and long overdue. At least one makes sense as an investment in expanding the economy but comes at a puzzling moment.
• The provincial government announced a hiring blitz for 300 full-time nurses, 100 for each of Edmonton and Calgary and the remainder for the rest of the province. Does this mean the end of the days of hospitals limping along with a core of overworked full-time nurses and an under-appreciated group of part-time caregivers? It should, but there has been no government expression of a change in philosophy, even if more money has miraculously appeared.
• The province pumped $53 million into 550 agencies that provide services for children in government care and adults with disabilities. The money is intended to provide two $1,500 lump sum payments to each full-time caregiver in these agencies, which do contract work for the provincial departments of Seniors and Community Supports and Children and Youth Services. Part-time workers will receive pro-rated payments. But these workers are historically underpaid, despite the critical services they provide. And the cash injection does nothing to change their base pay rates, nor does it carry a guarantee of a longer-term program of bonus payments to make up continuing poor pay for stressful jobs.
• Affordable housing projects across the province received almost $90 million in funding this week, half from the provincial government and half from the federal government. The projects — including a 40-unit, $5-million development in Red Deer — are desperately needed. But the dire need in Red Deer, for example, has existed for years. Even the construction of the new Extendicare-operated Michener Hill facility didn’t change the bed count for seniors care housing in Red Deer, since two aging facilities were promptly shut down last fall. The gap between need and availability continues to widen.
• The Calgary Stampede has recently received $25 million from the province, to match a grant from the federal government to expand its agricultural centre. The Stampede generates a great deal of economic activity in Calgary and the expansion will generate even more traffic and the potential for greater commerce. But Calgary is also a Conservative stronghold. Edmonton has been denied provincial money for its arena project and Northlands, the northern equivalent of the Stampede association, has significant economic issues: it owes the City of Edmonton $56 million, for starters.
• This spring, the province announced a $550-million project to build 22 sorely-needed schools across the province and to renovate another 13 aging and inadequate facilities. Yet it failed to provide school boards with enough money to maintain their teaching numbers, based on the salary costs dictated by a government-negotiated contract with teachers.
Albertans can reasonably wonder what has changed with a Progressive Conservative government that increasingly seems to fly by the seat of its pants.
What we have here, from a provincial government with 40 years of experience, is a pattern of roller-coaster spending, seemingly without foresight — or even hindsight. The cycles of explosive spending followed by penny-pinching behaviour have always looked for all the world like the work of a group of people suffering from attention deficiencies.
Factor in the Conservative leadership race — we will have a new premier this fall — and the likelihood of a provincial election next year and the uncertainty simply heightens. Who is to say that Premier Ed Stelmach’s plans won’t be set aside by the next premier, and the next government after that?
Maybe the next group of leaders will at least have a consistent and trustworthy plan, and be willing to share it with Albertans.
In the meantime, we should look at any spending with more than a little suspicion.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.