Finance Minister Travis Toews tabled Alberta’s 2023 budget Feb. 28, predicting a $2.4-billion surplus through a fiscal plan that relies heavily on oil and gas royalties to swell Edmonton’s coffers.
The budget, released roughly 90 days ahead of this spring’s provincial election, contains a massive bump in health-care spending and a plan to boost policing.
Speaking to rural journalists the next day, Toews touted the United Conservative Party’s “fiscal responsibility” since taking over from Rachel Notley’s NDP in 2019. The UCP has done much “heavy lifting” to curb the government’s per-capita spending, which had been roughly $10 billion higher in Alberta than in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, the minister said.
Fiscal responsibility remains “a key theme” in this year’s budget, with Toews outlining legislative steps to rein in deficit spending in the years ahead.
“Those fiscal rules will require a balanced budget, with appropriate exceptions [for heavy revenue shortfalls, sudden emergencies, etc.], and the fiscal rules will provide a strategy and a framework for surplus management.”
Budget 2023 projects roughly $71 billion in revenue by the end of next March, $18 billion of which is expected to come from oil and gas.
“The fact is, Alberta has a volatile revenue structure. We do still depend to a significant degree on royalty income [from non-renewable resources] to cover operational spending,” Toews acknowledged, qualifying in the next breath that Alberta’s economy was rapidly diversifying.
Vowing that “support levels for our most vulnerable cannot be dictated by globally set commodity prices,” Toews highlighted several commitments to boost health care, many of which had been announced before budget day.
To that point, the budget provides nearly $1 billion to shave ambulance wait times, plus $4.2 billion over the next three years to boost health care in rural and Indigenous communities.
The budget meanwhile provides 13 per cent more for the ministries of Justice and Public Safety. Toews said he would hold Public Safety Minister Mike Ellis accountable for putting 200 extra law enforcement officers on Alberta streets, mostly in the form of provincial sheriffs.
Toews did not say how much money the province has spent on exploring the possibility of replacing the RCMP with an independent Alberta Police Service, echoing Ellis’s comments last month that the government hasn’t made up its mind.
“We’ve obviously made no decision as would be reflected in this budget. But we have made a decision to increase enforcement in the meantime,” Toews said.
Notley’s NDP panned the budget, pouring scorn on Danielle Smith, who succeeded former premier Jason Kenney last fall.
“Frankly, the best news in Danielle Smith’s first budget is that it could be her last one because, very soon, Albertans will have a choice to turn the page,” Notley said.
The Opposition leader swung at Smith’s contentious revamp of the province’s RStar program that rewards petro companies for meeting their legal obligations to reclaim spent oil wells, calling Budget 2023 “a fraudulent budget designed to buy votes ahead of the election and then spring the costs on Albertans after the polls have closed.”