By Cole Parkinson
If the Blue Ribbon Panel report is any indication, there may be some big changes coming to Alberta this upcoming budget.
The MacKinnon Report, or Blue Ribbon Panel report, was led by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon to examine Alberta’s finances, and 26 overall recommendations around education, health, public sector, capital spending, program review, enhancing Alberta’s competitiveness and balancing the budget were submitted to fix Alberta’s “spending problem.”
“There were no surprises there. We put together a panel of experts to analyze our province’s finances. Their mandate was clear and they did that job, and came back with a report that didn’t have any real surprises for us,” said Cardston-Siksika MLA Joseph Schow in an interview with the Advance. We know the province is in a terrible financial situation, primarily as a result of the previous government who had tens of billions of dollars to the debt. They kept racking up deficits with no budget in sight. They kept telling us that we are going to balance it this year, this year, this year and they kept pushing back that date. Overwhelmingly, Albertans rejected that in the past election and the MacKinnon panel showed what the NDP did to our government. We now have to move forward and have some fiscal responsibility. Also, opportunity, I have met with a lot of towns and counties, and one of the things they really want is some predictability and we are restoring that to the province. We’ll have a budget coming out on Oct. 24. The MacKinnon panel gives us a glimpse into where things are at and the situation we have to deal with as a result of the previous government.”
In terms of what local municipalities, including the Town of Vauxhall and Municipal District of Taber, can anticipate in the budget, Schow is expecting plenty of communication between the provincial government and Alberta municipalities.
“What they can expect is a government that will communicate with them. That was my plan right from the beginning. We may not always agree on everything but we’ll always have an open chanel for communication. I have been doing the tours to towns and talking with councils, and with the counties and I say ‘we don’t really have the budget and we’re still working on the budget’ but rest assured the concerns brought up are being heard and addressed so when the budget comes out we can all agree that we can adapt and move forward to create great things. They are just looking for some consistency and some future planning to create long term plans but they also recognize the position we are in,” continued Schow.
The major point within the report highlighting a shift to municipalities paying for more capital funding states to ‘examine the legislative framework for capital funding to municipalities with the goals of aligning funding to provincial goals priorities and fiscal capacity, and considering funding formulas that require municipalities to share more in the costs of major projects; adjusting allocation formulas for grants to municipalities to bring Alberta’s provincial and municipal per capita capital stock in line with the comparator provinces; establishing accountability mechanisms and performance measures to monitor the delivery of municipal programs and services and value for money spent, so citizens have the ability to evaluate their local government and the use of tax dollars; and making better use of federal infrastructure funding through the Investing in Canada Infrastructure Program to more effectively manage the costs of Alberta’s Capital Plan.
“We’re looking for work with any municipality and making sure they can utilize every competitive edge that they have. That’s really where we are at so working with them and hearing their concerns. We just had the AUMA (Alberta Urban Municipalities Association) conference and we have the RMA (Rural Municipalities of Alberta) conference coming up. We haven’t made any specific commitments besides to work with the municipalities and that was a message we got from the premier at the AUMA conference which was these municipalities are at the lowest level of government, they are closest to the people. I am actually envious of municipal leaders because they work so closely with the people of the municipality. We need their input and they gave it to us. We had a very open and transparent conversation at the AUMA with ministers and they know we are here to work with them, not against them,” stated Schow.
Another major point within the report was a cut at the education level.
Two recommendations were focused around public school funding and they stated to “decrease the percentage of government funding that goes to K-12 administration and governance (currently 25 per cent) to a level comparable to British Columbia (17 per cent) and to “completely review and revise the current K-12 education funding formula to ensure enrolment growth is addressed and provide incentives for sharing services and achieving better education outcomes for students.”
“The school boards know far better what their needs are than we do at the government as a whole. We also have to make sure that we are able to meet the needs of the local school boards, we need to make sure that our world-class teachers have the resources they need to continue to educate our kids and produce highly competitive students for the next phase of their lives. That is really what we are hearing from them so when it comes to working with them and I have met with some of the school boards,” explained Schow.
With a large document highlighting several sectors that are recommended for adjusting, Schow says it was a good eye-opener for Albertans on what to expect when the UCP budget is released later this month.
“What I saw was a need for fiscal responsibility to come back to Alberta,” he said. “It’s a good sober look at where the province is financially and then create a plan to move forward where we can be competitive with the province and be the most competitive jurisdiction in the confederation, and one of the most competitive jurisdictions in the world. I think we are en route to that but this panel is telling people that we are in a tough spot but we have a great opportunity. We’re fighting for my neighbours, we’re fighting for the mom and dad who want to put food on the table because that essentially is what it comes down to.”