By Ian Croft
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Following the drop of the new provincial budget on Feb. 28, the Alberta government held a post-budget round table to go into more details of some of the main concerns this budget is addressing. Travis Toews, president of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance, started things off by going over some of the main and minor themes that were key in this budget.
“Budget ’23 really consists of a number of things,” said Toews. “Two themes that have been standing agenda items for every budget since we took office, number one is that Budget ’23 includes the objective standing agenda item of positioning Alberta’s economy for competitiveness resulting in economic growth, investment attraction, economic diversification, job creation, and ultimately expanded fiscal capacity which result in additional government revenue. That’s been a standing agenda item in every budget that I have presented. I believe that should be a standing agenda item of every budget period. The other standing agenda item is fiscal responsibility. We took over in 2019 — privileged to serve Albertans as their government. We inherited a government that was close to spending $10 billion more compared to provinces on a per capita basis. We set it as a fiscal anchor in the early days to bring our spending in alignment with the average of BC, Ontario and Quebec on a per capita basis. We did some heavy lifting over the last three years to get that done.”
“The good news is by ’22 – ’23, our current fiscal year, we erased that $10 billion differential, and that’s important news, that’s good news for Albertans. I believe the government spending is down to where it’s sustainable in the long term.”
Following these two grand themes that outline the entire budget Toews went into some more focused topics. The first thing that he discussed was the growth to Alberta’s population.
“A few other key themes in Budget ’23 is one, additional investment in our education system, and supporting Albertans through our affordability channels. One thing that we’re seeing across the province is an increase in net migration from Canadians choosing Alberta as their home. In Q3 of 2022 almost 60,000 new Albertans came to this province. That’s remarkable. We’re projecting population to be 2.9 per cent in ’23. All of that is going to require an increased level of services and with respect to education so many of the folks that are coming to Alberta are families. Families with children so enrolment growth is really going through the roof. A good problem to have. This budget ultimately funds enrolment growth. It also funds additional resources for increasing complexity within the classroom, and it funds transportation growth and increased transportation services in the province of Alberta.”
The second theme that Toews discussed is how the budget was adjusted to help individuals when it comes to the price at the pump.
“Affordability is a big issue and of course we’re dealing and living through a time of high inflation. A time of inflation rates we haven’t really seen since the mid-80s,” said Toews. “Last fall we rolled out an affordability plan, a comprehensive plan that’s based firstly on tax relief. We suspended the fuel tax in the province, that full suspension took affect January 1 it will go right till the end of June. The program doesn’t end in June it continues on, and it will be a program in perpetuity. Every time energy prices go up once WTI West Texas Intermediate oil prices hits $80 the fuel suspension program starts to take affect with a full suspension of our fuel tax when oil hits $90. Albertans can benefit from an owned resource on an annualized basis that is a $1.3 billion saving for Albertans and Alberta businesses. We’ve also been providing electricity rebates providing relief from high electricity prices. In total over the course of the fiscal plan it amounts close to $1 billion in utility relief through that rebate program. We’re also providing direct support to families, to seniors, and to our most vulnerable.”
From here Toews moved on to the next theme which was assisting Alberta post secondary students with their loans.
“In this budget we have announced additional support for post secondary students. Reducing the interest rate to student loans to prime, but also extending the grace period by six months. Now that grace period historically has been effectively from the date of graduation and six months thereafter, and during that period interest is not accrued on student loans and payment is not required. We are extending the period from six months to one year. Again assisting students after graduation, getting into the workforce before they have to start paying their student loans back, and before interest starts to accrue on those student loans. We’re also increasing the income threshold for our program that provides relief from student repayment, and prior to this budget, when an individuals income hits $25,000 they were no longer eligible for the relief from the repayment of some loans. We’re moving that threshold up to $40,000 just recognizing that everything is going up and that individuals that are making less than $40,000 can use support assistence through extending that grace period during that time.”
Somewhat related to the increased population, Toews discussed the budget will also aid the healthcare sector by attracting more healthcare workers into Alberta, and increasing the number of available students who can go through university programs to become a healthcare worker.
“Another key theme in this budget is strengthening our healthcare system. We are really experiencing a healthcare challenge right across the province. Certainly in my pre-budget consultation that I heard from Albertans urban, rural, north, and south that healthcare is a challenge, and we’re really experiencing a challenge with respect to capacity. This isn’t so much of capacity of bricks and mortar it’s a capacity challenge of frontline healthcare professionals. Budget ’23 goes a long way to address those capacity issues. We are providing funding to attract foreign trained healthcare professionals into the province, and our healthcare minister is working at the certification criteria with our colleges, both colleges of physicians and surgeons, and nurses’ colleges at this time. Budget ’23 is also funding 2000 additional seats in our post secondary institutions, healthcare occupations and disciplines including RNs, LPNs, and healthcare aids. Budget ’23 is also funding an additional 120 seats in our school of medicine both the University of Calgary and the University of Edmonton. That’s going to increase our capacity for physician training by almost 40 per cent. We’re making real moves in this budget to expand the capacity of our healthcare system, specifically the capacity of our frontline healthcare workers. Included in Budget ’23 and included in the agreement that we recently came to with the Alberta Medical Association is additional funding for recruitment and retention for rural physicians and healthcare workers. That’s also important if you live in rural Alberta like I do, it is important that we attract and retain more physicians and healthcare workers.”
The last topic that Toews touched on while providing this high-level overview was ensuring that both the police and court systems within the province are well funded.
“We are making substantial investments into the Ministry of Public Safety, and the Ministry of Justice,” said Toews. “To increase the level of enforcement, increase the level of policing, more boots on the ground right across Alberta. This budget increases Public Safety’s budget by 13 per cent. It’s going to fund well over 200 additional enforcement officers right across Alberta. We’re also increasing the Ministry of Justice by close to 10 per cent. We simply haven’t had enough capacity over these last few years to — on a timely basis to ensure that every case is heard. We’re going to be increasing our court capacity right across the province so ultimately justice is served, and perpetrators get their day in court. That lower priority cases aren’t lost in the system.”