If Doug Horner has aspirations to become premier of Alberta, he kept them to himself on Thursday.
The province’s finance minister made no mention of the pending leadership race during a presentation at a Red Deer Chamber of Commerce luncheon.
When he was later asked by media about his plans, Horner confirmed that he’s been urged by a number of people to seek Alison Redford’s former job and discussed the possibility with his wife.
“We have to pass this budget in the legislature and I think it’s important that I steer that through,” he said, referring to the financial plan that his Progressive Conservative government tabled on March 6. “At the appropriate time we’ll make the decision.”
Horner added that he expects it to be business as usual in cabinet between now and the leadership vote in September.
“I don’t anticipate that (acting) Premier (Dave) Hancock is going to make any kind of drastic changes to any of the lineup. We’ll wait and see what happens with anybody who might want to step out to run in the race, but my focus right now is on the budget.”
Horner spent most of his time at the Chamber gathering, which attracted more than 100 people, pitching that budget.
He described Alberta’s rapid growth, noting how 105,000 people moved into the province last year. Three hurdles stand in the way of continued prosperity, said Horner: market access limitations, skilled labour shortages and inadequate infrastructure.
The third, he suggested, was the most worrisome.
“If we don’t build the infrastructure to allow people to get to work, to get home, to enjoy recreation, to get to school, to get a post-secondary education, to have the health care that they and their family are going to need, they’re not going to come.
“And if they don’t come, nobody fills the jobs, the jobs go somewhere else; and if the jobs go somewhere else, the investment goes somewhere else; and if the investment goes somewhere else, guess what happens to our economy? It goes south.”
The proposed budget seeks to address the infrastructure problem through heavy capital spending on schools, post-secondary institutions, health care facilities and roadwork, said Horner.
Although Alberta’s debt load is projected to grow from its current $14 billion to $21 billion by 2017, Horner defended his government’s fiscal strategy. The cost of borrowing is currently very low, he said, the assets being financed will last for decades and a plan is in place to repay the debt.
Horner pointed out that the Alberta government’s operational spending is slated to rise just 3.7 per cent this year — down sharply from the 7.3 per cent average increase in recent years.
“You can’t keep doing that,” he said. “It’s not sustainable.”
Alberta’s operational revenue is projected to rise by 5.4 per cent, netting out a surplus of $2.6 billion.
Horner also said that the province’s exposure to fluctuating energy markets is diminishing.
“Twenty-one per cent of our operational revenue is non-renewable resource revenue,” he said of the decreasing share of royalty revenues. “That’s a trend that is in the right way.”
Horner also pointed out that the province has budgeted for the discounted price that Alberta crude is subject to because of the difficulty getting it to coastal ports — the so-called bitumen bubble.
“We’re not planning on this going away.”