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Minister defends a ‘healthy spending budget’ for 2024

Posted on March 7, 2024 by Vauxhall Advance

By Cal Braid
Vauxhall Advance
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

The 2024 provincial budget was announced on Feb. 29 and there’s plenty to dissect. More than can be picked over in one sitting. Nevertheless, the province is ready to spend within reason on a broad range of services and initiatives.

In a television interview, Finance Minister Nate Horner told Global News, “I think if you look at the budget, it had an overall increase to the operational line of 3.9 percent, but what I think is really key is the lines in health and education, both at 4.4 percent. We took a lot of time and were very thoughtful around the priorities of Albertans in both health and education. That’s my main message to Albertans. That’s where we’ve put our priority and a lot of our dry powder, so to speak.”

Global anchor Scott Roberts interviewed Horner at the Alberta Legislature, and when Roberts insisted that the spending would shortchange the services people have come to expect, the minister said, “Well look, this is a $73 billion budget. I wouldn’t say in any way that this should be seen as an austerity budget. This is a healthy spending budget, obviously the largest in the province’s history, with the priority going towards health and education.”

Roberts told Horner that during the run-up to the election the current government promised tax cuts, and now those cuts have been shelved until 2026 at the earliest. In addition, the Roberts noticed a qualifier – that the cuts hinge on whether the province can balance the budget and remain fiscally ahead of the curve.

Roberts asked, “Is it fair to say there’s a chance this tax cut doesn’t come?” Horner replied, “Well I wouldn’t say that (in) that way. I would say it is certainly our intention to bring forward that tax cut. Our plan is to legislate it in 2025 and go to nine percent on a $60,000 dollar bracket in 2026 and eight percent in 2027. The overall cost to revenue would be $1.4 billion, so that gives us time to make sure we have the fiscal capacity to do that while running balanced budgets.”

“But (you’re) certainly stopping short of guaranteeing that’s what’s going to happen,” Roberts challenged.

“I’ve been (on the) treasury board when oil went negative…and watched what that could do to government finances. I would never say never, but it is our intention and my commitment to fit it in and balance the budget and bring forward the tax cut,” Horner replied.

As for the Budget’s 2024 commitment to invest in a “refocused health care system, so every Albertan has access to the care they need, when and where they need it,’ some of the highlights include:

-an operating budget of $26.2 billion for the Health ministry, up $1.1 billion from the 2023-24 forecast.

-$6.6 billion for physician compensation and development programs, including $129 million annually for recruitment and retention of physicians who practice full-time in underserved areas and $12 million increase for the existing Rural Remote Northern Program.

-$2 billion per year for Drugs and Supplemental Health benefit programs, including $883 million for the seniors drug program that supports over 700,000 seniors.

-$1.55 billion to continue building the Alberta Recovery Model and ensure anyone suffering from the deadly disease of addiction or facing mental health challenges has an opportunity to pursue recovery.

-$475 million to support the continued implementation of modernizing Alberta’s primary health care system.

-$313 million for Alberta Surgical Initiative to help increase the number of surgical procedures performed in Alberta annually.

-$200 million over two years to improve access to family physicians.

-$126 million over three years for the Rural Physician Expansion Program to increase rural and Indigenous access to medical education and increase the number of family medicine and generalist physicians

-$26 million in capital funding over three years for the University of Lethbridge Rural Medical Teaching School to provide more opportunities to train doctors in smaller communities.

Horner also mentioned a heavy investment in education. Those investments include:

-more than $1.2 billion over three years, including $842 million in new funding, to support

enrolment growth and enable schools to hire hundreds of new teachers.

-More than $1.5 billion for learning supports funding to support vulnerable students, children with specialized learning needs and other students requiring additional support.

-funding new schools in growing communities and supporting choice in education with a $393 million increase in operating expenses to the Education ministry, for a total of $9.3 billion in 2024-25.

-$209 million for Program Unit Funding in 2024-25, including $26 million over three years in additional funding to provide timely and early education for children with severe developmental disabilities or delays.

-$103 million in capital funding over three years to increase modular classroom spaces to address the most urgent needs for additional student spaces across the province

-$24 million over the next three years to fund growth for new private schools and Early Childhood Services operators, increasing the province’s support for parental choice in education

The budget also lays out a fiscal plan for families, those in need, safer communities, resource management, affordability, and competitive advantage in the economy.

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