By Jamie Rieger
Premier Jim Prentice warned the public a number of months ago that the 2015 provincial budget would not be a pretty one. So, when the budget came down on Thursday, a lot of people were not surprised.
“There was a $7-billion revenue shortfall going into this thing. I don’t know that they had much choice,” said Bow Island mayor Gordon Reynolds.
The shortfall, which accounts for approximately 15 percent of Alberta’s total revenue, is blamed largely on plunging oil prices which have fallen by more than 50 percent since June, 2014.
With this belt-tightening budget, the province is looking at a $5-billion deficit.
“We are facing a $5-billion deficit with this budget, the biggest in Alberta history and we are seeing their (the PC government) mistakes,” said Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes. “There are 59 new taxes or increases in this budget and it will impact the average family by about $2,500 a year.”
One of those new taxes is the return of health care premiums, which was eliminated several years ago. According to the budget, Albertans with taxable income over $50,000 will pay that is being called a Health Care Contribution Levy, effective July 1, 2015. This levy will not impact those earning less than that and will be capped at $1,000 a year.
Fuel tax on gasoline and diesel is also increasing by four cents to 13 cents per litre. Fuel tax in Alberta was last increased in 1991.
“I can handle the fuel tax with gas prices the way they are as long as it goes to where it is supposed to and it is not permanent,” said Reynolds.
total consolidated spending for the Health Ministry is being budgeted at $18.9 billion, down 0.8 percent of what was previously forecast.
While Alberta Health Services has said the cuts will not impact patient services, 1,695 full-time positions, primarily non-clinical positions will be eliminated through attrition.
“Here (in Bow Island), we are having trouble filling a number of non-clinical health care positions, like a pharmacist and a records clerk. At least, the they are not touching the front line workers with this budget,” said Reynolds.
“We are still recovering from all the cutbacks from a number of years ago, so it is good they are continuing with infrastructure projects,”
Reynolds noted that the Town has not been moving forward with larger projects until they knew what they would be able to work with in regards to provincial grant funding. With MSI operating grants being phased out, adjustments have been made.
One grant that was eliminated from this year’s budget was the grant for social housing and low rentals, which will cost the Town of Bow Island approximately $25,000.
Prairie Rose School Division was crunching the numbers on Friday to determine to what extend the budget would impact its students and schools.
“The recently announced budget is very vague and it’s still unclear as to how it will impact the division. Once more information is received from Alberta Education we will be able to get a better idea of how the budget will affect students and staff,” said Stuart Angle, PRSD chair in a written statement. “ The province has asked boards to find efficiencies in their budgets. Prairie Rose has already been doing this for years due to funding cuts, claw-backs and reduced enrolment so finding additional funds is going to be a huge challenge. It’s not fair for the Province to say that students will not be affected by cuts, despite a promise to maintain funding for teacher’s salaries. Support services, instructional materials, transportation and other support staff could all be affected by the imposed 2.7% decrease from 40% of the Instructional grant.”
Angle also said that the 1.35% funding reduction for transportation will impact the division and other rural school boards.
On a positive note, Angle said they are happy the province is remaining committed to its capital projects, with $5 billion budgeted for schools; $4.1 billion for construction, $909 million for maintenance and renewal, and $2 billion for 57 new and 20 modernization projects.
“ The board is pleased that the Province has committed to maintain funding for capital projects. Much work has been done in preparation for breaking ground on the new Schuler School. It is good to see a commitment from the province to follow through on that promise,” said Angle.
County of Forty Mile reeve, Bryne Lengel had not had a chance to review the budget and reserved comment at this time. Village of Foremost mayor, Ken Kultgen had not returned the Commentator’s phone call for a comment.