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Finance minister talks to Chamber about budget

Posted on April 11, 2024 by Vauxhall Advance

By Al Beeber
Southern Alberta Newspapers

Alberta Finance Minister and President of the Treasury Board Nate Horner gave a recent post-budget luncheon talk to the Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce.

The Minister walked an audience of about 100 people through Budget 2024, talking about initiatives contained within it and challenges facing the province in the future.

Horner talked about investments that will impact southern Alberta, specifically $26 million in capital funding over the next three years for the Rural Medical Teaching School at the University of Lethbridge which is aimed at providing more opportunities to train physicians in smaller Alberta communities with the intention that they stay in those communities.

He said the province is investing $251 million over three years for communities to build more berms, dams, canals and reservoirs to protect people and property from floods and droughts.

It also supports other water projects. The province must provide farmers and agricultural producers with a reliable and safe source of water to grow crops and feed cattle with the budget investing more than $250 million for agriculture projects across Alberta, the minister said, adding that $18 million is being invested in irrigation projects in southern Alberta. Money is also being invested to continue the twinning of Highway 3.

He addressed the province’s wildfire mitigation strategy which includes an investment of $206 million to enhance the ability of the province to fight wildfires. A portion of that money – $55 million – is being used for new wildfire fighting equipment and facilities including the upgrading of its water tanker fleet. The province is working with De Havilland to procure five, he said. 

He told the attentive audience that the UCP government is investing money – $254 million – for the construction of 3,300 new affordable housing units and completion of 1,800 that are already underway – and it’s investing in new hundreds of new spaces at homeless shelters.

And he said Alberta is following the lead of Saskatchewan and 44 American jurisdictions including Montana, Oregon and California by taxing electric vehicles $200 annually which will be their owners’ contributions for maintaining roadways and supporting other public services.

The province still has among the lowest taxes in Canada with Albertans being charged $19 billion less in taxes than they would if they lived in any other province, he said.

“Overall, we are carefully shaping and refining Alberta’s competitive tax system,” he noted.

Horner said the theme of the budget is a “responsible plan for a growing province,” before addressing what he called strategic investments aimed at supporting Albertans today and maintaining the province’s economic growth into the future.

The predicted surplus in the budget is a lot smaller than last year. He called it a responsible plan that “strikes the right balance between investing wisely to meet the needs of Albertans today and ensuring those services remain sustainable to support the next generations.

“We are refocusing the health care system so that every Albertan has access to care when and where they need it. We’re investing in a bright future for our children with new and modernized schools and learning supports for students of all abilities,” he said.

The budget keeps life more affordable for families and “provides services and supports to those in need,” the Minister added.

“We’re also investing in a safe and secure Alberta by providing mental health, addiction and police supports so all Albertans feel secure and welcomed,” he added.

He said the budget is strengthening Alberta as the country’s economic engine.

“The future is promising. Following a year of solid growth, we expect people will continue to flock to Alberta, driving up our population by 3.7 per cent in 2024,” a slight decrease from the four per cent in 2023, he said.

Job gains will continue, he added, which will help industries facing labour shortages attract and maintain more workers, he said, noting the province is welcoming new investment from across Canada and around the world. That includes a bio-ethanol plant coming to Calgary and other investments.

One project, the Dow Chemical net zero carbon emissions ethylene cracker at Fort Saskatchewan, will be the second largest in Alberta’s history and create 8,000 jobs at peak construction, he added. This will be the first in the world that’s net zero.

He said government is creating an environment that generates more jobs and diversifies the economy.

Horner said the province is facing significant debt servicing costs, expected to be about $3.4 billion in 2024-25. When the UCP first came to power, that figure was closer to $2.5 billion, he said.

He said  there is a “very real immediate concern” of natural disasters and extreme weather events with last summer’s wildfire season seeing 2.2 million hectares of land burned and the evacuation of 38,000 people.

That also depleted the province’s $1.5 billion contingency and close to 60 fires are still burning, up from the half dozen or 10 in a normal year.

He said the ongoing drought is a huge concern for farmers, industry and all Albertans, especially in the south.

With little potential rain on the horizon, the province has to plan with the future in mind, Horner said.

Forecast revenue for 2024-25 is $73.5 billion, $2.1 billion lower than the forecast in 2023-24. The majority of that, he said, is due to a decreased forecast in oil prices. West Texas Intermediate is forecast at $74 a barrel and was higher in the forecast, he said.

Every dollar of WTI means about $630 million to provincial revenue, he said.

But although resource revenue is down, the province expects to get more from its heavy oil when the Trans-Mountain pipeline opens later this year.

“The world needs our clean energy and with TMX we will get our vast resources to the west coast more efficiently and increase access to global markets.”

Health care is the top priority of Albertans so the UCP is investing $475 million to strengthen primary care and is training more rural and Indigenous family doctors. It’s also developing a new compensation model for nurse practitioners and is “transforming continuing care so seniors can age with dignity in their community with better access to home care and end of life care. And we’re investing in new mental health and addictions facilities to keep expanding access to our recovery-oriented system of care in all communities,” the minister added.

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