Five Alberta cabinet ministers faced tough questions recently from the community press on such issues as the economy, health care, education and electoral boundaries.
Publishers and editors representing the Alberta Weekly Newspapers Association (AWNA) squared off in Edmonton with the ministers in their annual convention’s bearpit session. On hand were Health and Wellness Minister Ron Liepert, Education Minister Dave Hancock, Infrastructure Minister Jack Hayden, Service Alberta Minister Heather Klimchuk and Municipal Affairs Minister Ray Danyluk.
The bearpit was moderated by Ponoka News editor George Brown.
Budgeting and the economy
Hancock, who also sits on the Treasury Board, said Alberta’s economy is strongly tied to natural resources and the price they command on world markets. Government takes “the best advice from around the world, matching it up with what you know” to determine a budget figure for the price for natural gas and oil.
“Forecasting the price of a world commodity…is a very difficult task.”
Hancock said the vagaries of weather, war and industrial hot spots around the world all affect the market. The government forecast oil to be $53 per barrel and it is now trading around $70 but that isn’t enough to make up for the low price of natural gas.
The recovery of 10 trillion cubic feet of shale gas in Louisiana adds a new competitor into the mix.
“That’s what takes you on a swing from $7 billion extra last year when the price of oil gets up to $147 a barrel and gas was way over $7, to this year where oil is down to $70 and gas is hovering under $3,” Hancock said.
Liepert added that as an exporting province, Alberta’s economy is tied to the US dollar.
“Every penny that the dollar changes means $220 million to our treasury.”
“A 10-cent difference in the dollar is $2.2 billion.”
Cuts to Alberta Education
School board’s capital projects already on the drawing board are safe from government cuts, Hancock confirmed.
Alberta Education recently decided to clawback about $50 million in funding to school divisions, part of its share of cost-cutting. Local boards saw their operating surpluses depleted. The Wolf Creek School Division will give back almost $1 million to the government.
“They’ve saved that money from their operating budgets for purposes so it’s not like it’s free money just lying there,” Hancock acknowledged, “but it is a place where we can do the adjustment that will have relatively minimal affects this year.”
He said most capital projects are at a stage where they cannot be put on hold. Alberta Education will work with Alberta Infrastructure to determine how best to balance the desire to continue with capital projects because it helps to stimulate the economy with the need to balance the budget over time.
That’s also complicated because Alberta is also getting a good price from contractors now.
Cabinet ministers said there is no going back to the system whereby local school boards levied a property tax to fund education.
“Municipalities are very deadset against anyone moving…into property tax room,” Hancock said. Increases in property taxes or other taxes “probably aren’t a good thing to do during a recessionary period.”
Municipal Affairs Minister Danyluk said the current system of funding education, implemented after regionalization in the mid-1990s, provides equitable funding for students across Alberta.
“Whether you live in Oyen, whether you live in Bonnyville, or whether you live in Edmonton, you have the same access,” he said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that delivery is the same, but access is the same.”
More seniors’ spaces needed
Health Minister Liepert admitted it will take a few years before the full benefits of one Alberta Health Services superboard are realized.
“Are you ahead in year 1, probably not. But hopefully you’re ahead in years 2, 3 and 10.”
One superboard was not created to save money, he explained.
“One health board was created so that we could serve every Albertan equitably in health care and that was not going to happen under the regions.”
In response to a question, Liepert said Alberta Health Services will work with municipalities and the private sector to create more spaces for senior citizens in lodges and long-term care centres.
Seniors housing outside of long-term care is not considered health care but long-term care is.
Liepert said there have been barriers to creating more affordable long-term care spaces because there is no financial return for developers. Operators receive $58 a day to provide rooms, meals and care. “There is no money in it for the private sector.”
“So it falls to government to build long-term care facilities.”
Because there aren’t enough long-term care spaces, upwards of 500 seniors are in acute care beds who shouldn’t be there, he said.
New boundaries give rural Alberta a voice
Community press publishers and editors were asked by the cabinet ministers to encourage their readers to participate in the Electoral Boundaries Commission hearings. Four new constituencies will be created for the next provincial election and hearings will be held across Alberta to discuss the proposals.
Service Alberta Minister Klimchuk said rural MLAs have more difficulty than urban MLAs to meet with their constituents because of the size of the constituency, the number of municipalities, school boards, chambers of commerce and other jurisdictions that need to meet with their elected representative.
“That’s the challenge we have as legislators, to make sure we can continue to reach out to people and keep in mind what Albertans need.”
Hayden said he represents the “largest continuously populated constituency” in Alberta, Drumheller-Stettler, which is 420 kilometres across.
“My constituency is larger than PEI and they have three levels of government.”
This summer, Hayden put on 22,000 kilometres driving to an average of six events and meetings in his constituency. “We try, as MLAs, to be at as many functions in our constituencies as possible.”
“Spread me any thinner and it becomes more difficult for us to be an effective representative of the people.”
Danyluk said for him, constituency distribution is about “equitable representation — not necessarily equal but is it equitable?”
Hancock and Liepert represent two of the three largest urban constituencies. “…(I)n some ways it’s easier for me to do my constituency than it is for (Hayden) to do his because I don’t have to travel very far and most of the people don’t expect to see me all the time,” Hancock said.
As a unicameral legislature, Hancock said Alberta needs to ensure that not only are individual voices represented but regions too. If seats were added to the legislature based solely on population, Calgary would get two and Edmonton one.
Liepert has 60,000 in his Calgary constituency and he can get to any corner of the constituency in 10 minutes.
“So it’s a helluva lot easier for me to represent my 60,000 constituents than it is for (Hayden) to represent 25,000.”
Hancock said part of governance is getting out into the constituency.
“We don’t cut ribbons because we want to get our picture in the paper.
“We do it because it’s part of governance, it’s how we celebrate our community and how we celebrate our successes. These are milestones in communities.
“People do expect you to be there,” he added. “They don’t expect you to participate virtually, they want you to be there on the ground.”
For information on how to get involved with the Electoral Boundaries Commission hearings, go to http://www.altaebc.ab.ca/index.html