It was an attempt at further public consultation prior to the provincial budget being handed down next month.
Premier Rachel Notley, along with finance minister Joe Ceci, took questions over the phone and online during a pair of town halls held last week, but both forums drew more questions about what the government is doing rather than getting ideas on how to accomplish any goals in the budget. The first town hall went Jan. 30 for northern regions with southern Alberta having the chance on Jan. 31.
While both town halls did see some questions regarding the 2017-18 budget, about half of each 90-minute session was taken up by the premier and Ceci having to defend the recently enacted carbon levy. To sum up the responses, Premier Notley stated the revenue from the levy is being put back into the economy through programs and rebates.
Ceci added some of those programs, such as grants for solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades, are already running with more programs slated to come over the next few months. As well, the government is hoping recent rule changes and incentives in the electricity sector will increase power generation at the business and household levels.
Once the real budget questions began, the ballooning debt and constant deficits was the big topic touched on, with Ceci stating the government is committed to eventually balancing the budget and then being able to pay down the growing debt.
“The government is using a shock absorber approach and will bring down the debt over several years,” he stated.
“We have to get back into balance. We will have deficits for a short time in order to not have the downturn placed on people’s backs. If we tried to balance it now, it would take cutting 20 per cent of the budget. That’s half of our health care spending and we are not going to do that.”
He added the province is cutting the number of boards and agencies plus freezing salaries for MLAs, management and political staff then redirecting those savings to other areas.
“We are slowing spending and anticipate significant future non-renewable revenues. People are concerned and rightly so. Spending at this rate is not sustainable, but to make Alberta less vulnerable we are taking actions to diversify the economy and transition so as not to be so dependent on oil,” he said.
On that same note, Notley explained the government is working hard on diversification.
“One can’t turn things around on a dime. We are working to promote the upgrading and processing of petroleum products here with two recently announced projects worth about $6 billion. We need more of that value-added production, but we are also attracting renewable energy projects plus new manufacturing and other investments.” she said.
One of those new projects is a $350 million potato processing plant in southern Alberta. Also on the table is work on attracting more innovation and technology jobs and generating more tourism.
Other topics the public quizzed the pair on included not yet fulfilling the $25 per day daycare promise, why supports for those in need remains well below what is needed, job creation and how is the government looking at improving health care.
On the other side of the legislature, Wildrose Lacombe-Ponoka MLA Ron Orr was more critical of how the NDP seemingly botched the roll of the consultations, opting to hear from supporters first before the public.
“Once again, the NDP mishandled the rollout of this process,” he said, “by putting out a special invite to meetings with questions and people that simply reaffirmed their own position rather than hear challenging ideas and questions first.”
Orr added the town halls are a good thing and the NDP need new ideas.
“I think, in this economy, they are struggling with recycled ideas and if they were open to listening then there would be much better policy in place,” Orr said.
He also stated that once the budget is released, the Wildrose will take a careful look and challenge only what the party believes are ideas that won’t provide the necessary services at a reasonable cost.