With just three months until the expected provincial election, Alberta’s finance minister tabled a budget that has many calling the financial plan a bid to curry favour when voters go to the polls.
Travis Toews didn’t deny it was an election budget when asked by reporters.
“We have an election here in a few months and this is a budget just ahead of that election,” Toews said, adding this budget continues the direction set in 2019, when the United Conservative Party were voted into power.
“It’s definitely an election budget,” Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said. “And even if you didn’t walk through the documents and the facts and the figures, just listen to the speech Travis Toews made.”
Bratt pointed to Toews claiming the previous NDP government’s economic management was harmful to the province’s finances.
“It resulted in the flight of billions of dollars in capital, tens of thousands of lost jobs, and perpetual deficits,” the finance minister told the Legislature.
“Our government brought a different approach.”
That different approach included cutting corporate taxes, cutting “red tape,” de-indexing Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) from 2019 to 2023, cutting funding for universities and focussing on trades, ostensibly harming trust with health care workers after tearing up its contract with doctors just ahead of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, among other recent measures like affordability payments.
Bratt said this year’s “big-spending” budget is not necessarily the result of frugality.
“What (Toews) fails to mention is all the resource revenue that has flowed in over the last two years,” Bratt said. “That’s the difference between now and then.”
Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley called it a vote-buying budget that used GDP and employment growth forecasts that are much higher than forecasts from the private sector.
“This is a fraudulent budget designed to buy votes ahead of the election and then spring the costs on Albertans after the polls have closed,” Notley said.
Jason Ribiero, a community advocate and policy expert, called it a “good times budget.”
Ribiero said the government is trying to say two things at once, using fiscal language for businesses and fiscal conservatives while addressing concerns like health care and education that individuals may have.
Bratt said the UCP government is trying to “pull the rug out” from the Opposition’s election planks by pointing to the spending outlined in the budget that was tabled Tuesday afternoon.
“They’re spending it on health care. They’re spending it on child care. And they’re spending it on education — new schools, new teachers, new nurses, more spaces for childcare,” Bratt said.
“Ask yourself how a budget by the NDP would be different than what we just saw here.”
Notley was quick to pull back the curtain on the details of the budget.
“(Health care spending is) $1.4 billion short of where we should be if we had simply kept the health budget aligned with Alberta’s population growth and inflation over the last four years,” the Opposition leader said.
“There is nothing in the new budget for economic diversification or technology. There’s no plan to attract the investment and talent that we need to fuel our economy in the coming decades.
“Of course, that resilient economy also depends on education. And once again, Danielle Smith continues to underfund our schools. They are short by $1.6 billion relative to where they should be. And we are now 3,600 teachers short of what we need.”
Notley said the Alberta NDP expects to roll out its fiscal plan in the coming weeks.
No carrots for Calgary
Calgary is expected to be the election battleground this spring, but there were no major spending announcements like funding for a new arena.
Ribiero noted the government has already announced some measures and expects to hear callbacks on the campaign trail.
“Even if it’s a very minor commitment, even if it’s very small, a small investment here in the West Ring Road, a small investment there into some cultural organizations, a potential study of feasibility for connecting the airport to the Blue Line — those kinds of nuggets can create a broader narrative about all they’re doing for Calgary, even if the major dollars don’t necessarily add up on an individual basis,” Ribiero told Global News.
University of Calgary economics professor Trevor Tombe pointed out an apparent coincidence in the 2023 budget when compared to the previous government.
“Total expenses for 2023/24 is projected at $68.3 billion. The previous NDP government was planning for $66.5 billion that same year,” Toews posted on social media, noting the $68.3 billion is an increase from the government’s November 2022 figure of $63.9 billion.
“Alberta’s first pre-election budget in eight years is opening the fiscal taps.”
Using a Thomas Jefferson quote in his budget speech, Toews tried to set the tone for the budget.
“The measure of society is how it treats the weakest member,” Alberta’s finance minister said, quoting the American founding father.
“I believe that the budget I’m presenting today reflects the true measure of Albertans with care — across the province, across ministries — for the most vulnerable and those who need a hand up,” Toews said.
“Thanks to a windfall in resource revenue, the Smith government had a generational opportunity to improve Alberta prosperity for the long term, but part of that opportunity has been spent away,” said Tegan Hill, a senior economist with the Fraser Institute, an independent, non-partisan Canadian public policy think tank.
CUPE called it a “cynical pre-election budget.”
“Support for big business carries on, but support for power bills, gas bills and other affordability measures are over June 1st, one day after Danielle Smith needs support from voters,” CUPE Alberta president Rory Gill said.
Similarly, Public Interest Alberta (PIA) called it a “blatant election budget.”
“So many of the so-called highlights of this budget are the UCP covering their tracks before an election,” said PIA’s executive director Bradley Lafortune.
Friends of Medicare also called it an “election-style budget.”
“Now that (the UCP) are headed into a tight election, where health care is the top issue for Albertans, they have tabled a budget claiming to be the champions of fixing our health care,” said Chris Gallaway, executive director of Friends of Medicare.
Bratt expected a “good news” budget this year and said it addresses many concerns Albertans may have.
“This is a budget that is appealing to everybody and only because they simply have so much money,” the MRU political scientist said.
“Imagine any other province with $18 billion in resource revenue.”