By Bobinec, Greg on March 9, 2020.
Lethbridge Chamber of Commerce hosted a private panel session of Alberta United Conservative Party government representatives over the weekend, to answer questions regarding the second budget and how it will effect southern Albertans.
President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance, Travis Toews joined Devin Dreeshen, Minister of Agriculture and Forestry, Grant Hunter, Associate Minister of Red Tape Reduction, and MLA Lethbridge East Nathan Neudorf to listen to southern Albertans’ concerns on policies, and opportunity for the government to invest.
“It is great to be down here to hear some of the challenges and opportunities, particularly in the ag-processing side,” said Toews. “As you know, economic diversification is important to Albertans and we know that the best ideas won’t come from us as a government, so we benefit when we hear from folks that are working on the front lines.
“We are hearing that we need to continue to ensure that we are making responsible fiscal decisions on behalf of Albertans and we intend to do that. Budget 2020 is along that track with a plan to balance by 2022-23.”
A concern for many Albertans from the 2020 budget was the cutting of funds from educational institutions, as well as the increased interest rates on student loans. With many students concerned about the affordability of receiving a higher education, Towes says Alberta needs to realign with the rest of the province in terms of tuition costs and operational costs in the institutions, and students are still protected from tuition spikes with their seven-per-cent cap raise each year.
“We absolutely have a responsibility to ensure that we are delivering programs in the province in the most cost-effective matter,” says Toews. “Alberta on average, compared to B.C., Ontario and Quebec, in Alberta it costs $10,000 more per full-time student in advanced education, so we have an advanced education minister that is working with our world-class post-secondary institutions, working with their boards to ensure that we can deliver advanced education in a more cost-effective way. Over the next four years, there will be a slight shift in terms of funding percentage. Our advanced education system in the past has depended disproportionately on government funding, relative to other provinces, and over the next three years that will shift so our funding percentage will more align with other provinces.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 virus making its way into Alberta, many citizens and health-care professionals are concerned about the new changes to billing and compensation for physicians, which reduces the amount of patients that can be seen per day and lowers staffing levels. They are also concerned about how the province will react to treating and controlling an outbreak, but Toews says they will respond as they need to as a government.
“In terms of COVID-19, Alberta Health and the Health Ministry is working across the province in preparation, so we can be prepared should the prevalence of COVID-19 increase dramatically in the province, and we will respond as we need to as a government. We believe that public health is of critical importance and we are taking the steps right now for increased cases if they were to occur,” says Toews.
“We are finding every way to provide services more effectively and efficiently. One thing we have included in our four-year fiscal plan is our $750 million in a contingency fund recognizing that as a province we may encounter emergencies, we may encounter events that will need a quick provincial response, so we have what I would say is a responsible amount to deal with those contingencies and emergencies.”
International trade was a major concern for some of the participants, as many countries are no longer trading between each other as a result of COVID-19. With uncertainty of how the virus will fully effect the economy, Towes says we are headed into economic uncertainty.
“Obviously like all Albertans, I hope it is shorter in length, but right now there is a lot of uncertainty,” says Toews. “Right now, we have seen commodity markets take quite a hit as a result of global economic uncertainty related to COVID-19, and really the uncertainty of how it will play out in populations and around the world, because we have a commodity based economy, agriculture, forestry, we are not insulated from changes in commodity prices. Right now at this time, it’s hard to say.”
Following the UCP information panel, many of the participants were able to get a better picture of what the budget has in store, but many are still wondering if the Alberta government has support for the growth and opportunities in southern Alberta in terms of tourism, technology, innovation, energy efficiency, parks, healthcare, and education.
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