By Collin Gallant
Alberta Newspaper Group
Alberta’s finance minister says his government could “be nimble” to bolster job creation through a loan to help clean up abandoned oil wells and “adjustments” to the capital budget in the face of a cratering oil prices.
He told a crowd in Medicine Hat on Monday that several new projects will be given the green light this month that key on bolstering economic activity.
Attendees had a quick answer.
“Highway 3 is sitting right there,” local Chamber of Commerce chair Tracy Noullett told Toews during a question and answer period.
That came after Toews said that new capital spending could be used to stabilize local economies while improving the long-term outlook for the economy.
It comes less than a year after the United Conservatives were elected on a platform to rein in spending in general and one week after a provincial budget discipline while tax cuts were advertised as the best approach to spur investment.
On Monday, a price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia sent oil prices in a free fall as financial trading resumed on Monday. That has major implications for economic activity in the province as well as revenue in the provincial budget.
“We have a jobs plan that built on the broad-based approach with moving up key infrastructure projects and an orphan well strategy,” said Toews. “We’ll look to those measures to remain nimble so that the negative effects of the commodity crash are minimized for everyday Albertans.”
In an afternoon press conference, Premier Jason Kenney called the price collapse “devastating” and his cabinet will meet with the energy sector and Ottawa to discuss further action. Along with some targeted capital spending increases, he portrayed his government’s general decrease in corporate tax rate and regulatory processes as “stimulative.”
Toews said new capital projects would be focused on moving “unfunded priorities” forward if they could prove a boost to economic activity. Last month a highway twinning in northern Alberta was moved up when municipal dollars for the $120 million project were secured.
Local governments and business associations have been making a concerted push to twin Highway 3 since the early 2000s as both a safety issue and matter of diversification.
“Ultimately it comes down to making the case, but fortunately, in this area, were all unified,” said Noullett. “It would open up markets for our people, and in the region, these are people who come to Medicine Hat.
“The minister is focusing on jobs, so we have a good argument to make.”
Last fall, the government received final engineering reports into twinning plans for two sections, including one near Pincher Creek and another from Taber to Burdett.
Gary Franz, the chair of the St. Mary’s Irrigation District, told Toews that a burgeoning agri-food industry near Lethbridge is stabilizing the economy there and could spread.
“I drive to Lethbridge every month and have seen the industry speed up,” he told the meeting. “I’d like to bring that here.”
While industry may be supportive of the move, it’s not clear if municipalities along the route would put forward funds considering their own budget challenges.
In late February the government announced that a funding agreement with two northern Alberta counties would see a highway twinning project and new major bridge near Grande Prairie.
That $120-million project is predicted to create $500 million in economic activity over 30 years, but is moving ahead with municipal funding where previously provincial roads were an Alberta government responsibility.
Top officials with the Highway 3 Twinning Association doubted if local governments would be able to pitch in financially.
On Monday, Medicine Hat Mayor Ted Clugston attended Toews’s address and spoke in broad support for the budget.
“We’ve been saying for years that we’d like to see it twinned,” said Clugston. “Really I don’t see (cost-sharing) in the future for Medicine Hat.”
Part of the new capital plan is also schools and hospitals, though Clugston notes that over the past five years the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital expansion has been completed along with two new schools and several other substantial modernizations.
“I think we got our fair share from the last two governments,” he said
Speaking generally after the meeting with about 40 Hatters at the Hampton Inn and Suites, Toews said that Monday’s economic news would be folded into the government’s budget expectations in a mid-year report.
“Right now the situation is so dynamic that it’s very difficult to make responsible decisions … but we’ll be putting out a mid-year report and promise to Albertans that we’ll keep a steady hand on the wheel financially in this province,” he said.
“Budget 2020, ultimately, is a spending plan that we’re committed to, and we’ll work to get that budget passed.”