EDMONTON — Albertans are “grieving” the loss of years of oil-fuelled prosperity as they come to terms with the need for a budget with a multibillion-dollar deficit, Finance Minister Iris Evans said Wednesday.
The fall from grace after years of huge surpluses isn’t easy for anyone, including the government, she acknowledged a day after tabling a budget that includes a $4.7-billion shortfall.
“It’s not easy because I look around at the faces of people and they don’t want to do that,” she said after a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce.
“I think the whole thought of Alberta having to spend from its emergency savings, and even borrowing, was one that we really grieved at the start, because you don’t expect to have that.
“We had been so used to being so buoyed up by such a wonderful economy.”
One of Evan’s first stops on her post-budget sales trip was an appearance on the Dave Rutherford talk show on Calgary radio station CHQR.
Callers gave her a rough ride over the shortfall and the government’s plan to still spend $23 billion over three years catching up on building projects.
“You guys are losing interest of the public in Alberta here. You better smarten up,” said a caller identified as Greg.
A subsequent caller identified as Roy compared Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach to the socialist president of Venezuela and the province to disgraced American energy company Enron.
“I believe you’re spending our money foolishly. You haven’t saved, you haven’t prepared us for the future and you guys should be gone,” said the caller.
Evans conceded that the government might have some explaining to do to upset constituents.
People may not understand that the money to make up the deficit is coming from the province’s $7-billion Sustainability Fund and no one is going hat-in-hand to the bank, she said.
“Clearly, if we can’t sell this budget, some people will feel that the sky is falling in Alberta and we’re not willing to do the right thing.”
Stelmach insisted in the legislature Wednesday that the province is “on the right track” with the budget, and said he hasn’t heard any complaints.
Total spending in 2009-10 is pegged at $36.4 billion, slightly down from last year’s figure.
Despite the deficit, that even keel shows Alberta is following a moderate approach to a global economic crisis, said Michael Gregory, senior economist with BMO Capital Markets.
Drastic cuts and tax hikes to balance a budget during tough economic times have shown in the past to make things worse, he said.
“I think they’ve taken a middle-of-the-road approach and given the uncertainty and volatility that could be a very prudent approach.”