4 things Calgarians will be watching in the 2017 Alberta budget

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4 things Calgarians will be watching in the 2017 Alberta budget

Finance Minister Joe Ceci will deliver his 2017 budget on Thursday and there's little doubt it will contain another major deficit.

The province is coming off an estimated $10.8-billion shortfall in the current fiscal year and, despite some signs of rebound in oil prices and the economy in general, government revenues aren't likely to surge anytime soon to make up that gap.

- ANALYSIS | Alberta spends $2,700 more per person than B.C. yet collects $1,300 less tax

At the same time, Ceci has made it clear that his government won't make deep spending cuts in response to the downturn, so the only real question is, how much red ink will be spilled?

Aside from that bottom line, there are other things people in Calgary will be paying attention to when the budget documents are released.

Here are four of them.

Green Line funding (or lack thereof)

Calgary's dream of an LRT line running from the north end of the city to the deep southeast has been fading lately.

It's still a top priority for the city but it's unclear exactly when the work can begin in earnest, as estimated expenses keep piling up and questions remain about where the money will come from.

The city is setting aside $1.5 billion for the massive project and the federal government has pledged another $1.5 billion, but so far the provincial government has not committed to making a contribution of its own.

Even with all three levels of government contributing equally, it's not clear that $4.5 billion would be enough to build the roughly 40 kilometres of light-rail, new stations and associated infrastructure, such as a costly tunnel beneath the Bow River.

That said, a provincial funding commitment would push the project forward in a big way and Mayor Naheed Nenshi will be watching the budget announcement closely for anything along those lines.

"Wouldn't it be nice if we actually saw a real commitment to the Green Line, whether from the carbon levy or from something else," he said this week.

"They've been spending money telling us to keep working, which is a very good indication that they're going to fund the whole thing. But I would like to see that commitment."

New and modernized schools

The cat may be out of the bag already on this one but it will still be an important item for many parents to watch when the budget details are revealed.

Based on sources, the Canadian Press reported Wednesday the Alberta budget will include funding for 10 new schools, nine replacement schools and seven school modernizations.

All told, the projects are expected to create 6,800 new spaces and 6,000 replacement spaces in 15 municipalities across the province, including Calgary, Airdrie and Banff.

Education Minister David Eggen wouldn't confirm the plans for new schools prior to the budget announcement but did say his government is looking to keep pace with growing enrolment, particularly in and around Calgary, where many young families are putting down roots.

"Those people are buying houses and having kids, so it's good for the long-term economy having a young population," said Eggen in an interview Tuesday.

"We're the youngest in the country, age-wise."

Affordable housing

Another budget item many in Calgary will be watching for is affordable housing.

In last year's budget, the NDP government announced a boost of $500 million over five years on that file, but that will just begin to ease what city officials have described as a backlog that has built up over several years.

Calgary Coun. Evan Woolley lamented how the city received no money from the provincial or federal governments for affordable housing between 2011 and 2015, while the need continued to grow.

For a period of three years during that funding dry spell, no new units opened in Calgary, but a new city plan adopted in 2016 would see 88 more units added this year and another 88 next year.

But with roughly 4,000 applicants on wait lists with the Calgary Housing Company, the mayor has said the city needs to "massively increase" its supply of affordable housing to meet the demand.

How it sets the stage for labour talks

Teachers are currently negotiating a new contract with the provincial government, while contracts for nurses, paramedics, health-care support staff and direct government employees are set to expire at the end of the month.

All told, the province will soon have to reach multi-year contracts with more than 100,000 public sector employees whose annual salaries total in the billions of dollars.

Public sector compensation accounts for roughly half of provincial spending. Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams says the government will have little choice but to take a tougher stance with unions, despite the labour-friendly history of the NDP.

"There's no way they're going to give any of these groups the increases that they want," she told CBC News.

"They can say, 'Look, we're not in a good position right now. There are a lot of Albertans that don't have jobs at all.'"

Recent deals with physicians and auxiliary nursing staff have set the stage for negotiations with larger unions in which cost savings are a top priority, Williams said.

The language in the budget should send another signal about the position the province will take as it sits down at the bargaining table.