By Justin Seward
Alberta’s Minister of Finance Travis Toews fielded questions on the 2022 budget with rural media on Feb. 28.
“This is a budget that broadly reflects a number of positives that we see taking place right across the province,” said Toews.
“It’s certainly a budget that reflects higher energy prices and we know that’s important for the province as a whole, as well as many regions within this province in terms of growth and economic opportunities. I do want to note though that we’re not using $85 and $90 and $100 in our energy price projections—we’re using $70 for West Texas Intermediate for 2022, $69 for 2023 and $66.50 for 2024. So we’re projecting I would suggest a very modest prices relative to what we see today and we’re projecting that those prices to come down over the term.”
Toews said what’s positive about this budget is even as energy prices are expected to trend down, the projected revenues are expected to increase year over year throughout the fiscal plan.
“And that’s a result of broad economic growth and diversification that we see taking place right across this province,” he said.
Toews highlighted the significant progress on affectively sustainable spending.
“We inherited a government that spent $10 billion more on a per capita basis than similar provinces and was increasing that (spending) at the rate of 4 per cent per year,” he said.
“Effectively, we’ve been able to hold our operational spending flat—even as we made very significant investments due to the COVID pandemic investments in health. Overall, our non-COVID spending has been kept flat and that’s been a very important ingredient to a balanced budget which of course we presented in Budget 2022.”
Toews says the province would have been presented a $6 billion deficit in the upcoming fiscal year instead of a $500 million surplus if Alberta kept on the current trajectory.
Toews said there are some significant components in this budget that is positive for agriculture.
“Firstly, No.1., and I think of southeastern Alberta, we’re going to continue to do our work on the twinning of Highway No. 3 (Taber to Burdett),” said Toews.
“We were certainly advised by business leaders and others in that part of the world that a lack of adequate transportation infrastructure on Highway No. 3 was holding back agri-food manufacturing and processing investment. That’s one reason why we identified that project as a part of our economic recovery plan. Budget 2022 funds that project.”
Irrigation expansion was also included in this year’s budget.
“We committed to a major irrigation infrastructure build last year. We’re going to be following through with that—it’s going to be a build that’s going to be just south of a billion dollars in total, including funding from the Canadian Infrastructure Bank as well as from the irrigation districts themselves.”
There is a $390-million investment for rural broadband.
“That $390-million investment is going to leverage significant private sector and federal government dollars into the province for a total spend of close to a billion dollars on rural broadband,” said Toews.
Toews was asked how bad the shortage of physicians and nurses in rural Alberta is and will current programs be enough for the rural Albertans’s health care needs are met.
“So this budget includes a real focus on increasing health care capacity broadly,” said Toews.
“We’re adding $600 million to health space budget in the upcoming fiscal year—$1.8 billion over the three years of the fiscal plan—so, it does include a very significant investment provincewide.”
Programs that are in this year’s budget include the Rural Education Supplement and Integrated Doctor Experience (RESIDE) program that will see 60 physicians move out into some of the most underserved regions of the province and practice.
In order to receive incentives, physicians will have to commit to three years in those communities.
The budget also includes $22.5 million for nurse recruitment attraction and retention.
There has been $64 million added into the budget for emergency medical services.
“We’ve had a lot of pressure on our EMS services over the course of the last year, year-and-a-half and so this budget responds to that pressure,” he said.
Municipal Sustainable Initiatives funding was front-loaded to $1.2 billion in 2021 from 1.7 billion to help municipalities recover from the pandemic and ensured that capital projects could continue.
The decrease resulted in the proportionate funding being reduced from $722 million a year to $485 million in 2022 and 2023, before rising again to $722 million in the last year in 2024.
Toews was asked about what the government’s concern is about what the negative impact will be on rural infrastructure if MSI is not brought back up.
“We signalled this already a year ago, so municipalities could plan,” said Toews.
“We frontloaded their capital budgets so they could accordingly with the projects they were going to take on and they knew we would be turning this funding down in the back end. Here’s why I think it’s appropriate to frontload that kind of approach. I think firstly, we’re able to build projects at a lower cost, secondly provide opportunities for Albertans and Alberta small businesses and thirdly effectively build infrastructure that is going to be important for investment and attraction and economic growth.”