Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci told a Calgary business audience he believes the NDP struck a good balance in last week's budget between improving the quality of life for Albertans and slowly stoking the stalled economy. But the head of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce says the province needs to work at lot harder to tame the growing deficit.
Ceci was making the case for the NDP government's budget Monday morning at a breakfast event sponsored by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce at the Hyatt Regency Hotel. He received a polite but not effusive welcome from the room.
During a question-and-answer session following his speech, Ceci said he's pleased that his government will be able to invest in vital new infrastructure projects around the province, hold the line on taxes and preserve programs for the less well-off.
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"I'm really pleased that our important social policies around the Alberta Child Benefit and the Alberta Working Family Tax Credit will make life easier for Calgarians," he said.
"All the monies that they get back in terms of those two programs gets reinvested back into the community here. They're not saving up money to go on vacation, they're kind of saving up money to buy kids' shoes."
There are good indications that Alberta's economy is rebounding, Ceci said, but he cautioned it will take until 2019 to return to the robust growth last seen in 2014.
"This is not a short-term thing," he said. "I think the fundamentals show us 2017 is going to be really positive."
Alberta debt to reach $45 billion
The spending blueprint Ceci laid out in the budget projects Alberta's debt to reach $45 billion in the coming year as his government plans to keep borrowing heavily to pay for government operations and to fund infrastructure projects.
The debt is forecast to hit $71.1 billion by 2019-20, with a debt-to-GDP ratio of 19.5 per cent.
This year's deficit is pegged to reach $10.3 billion.
"I think the question is, can Alberta service this debt? And the answer is, yes," Ceci said.
'I am worried,' chamber boss says
Chamber CEO Adam Legge steered clear of any direct criticism of the NDP's spending plan during the public discussion, but in a scrum with reporters afterwards, he was more blunt.
"I am worried that there is no meaningful exercise to reduce the deficit, which, year over year, will just compound the debt. So I am worried that we're not having enough of a focus on driving down our deficit," he said.
"The reality is, other provinces in this country are able to achieve equal or better outcomes in certain areas for less money per capita. So if they can achieve that, Alberta should be achieving that."
No plans to raise taxes
The budget lays out no immediate plans to raise taxes or slash spending this year, and the budget contained no specific details about how the NDP will get the books back into balance.
Ceci has said he plans to reduce the deficit to $7.2 billion by 2019-20 by keeping operating spending increases to 2.2 per cent and 2.7 per cent in the next two fiscal years.
"I'm going to be focused on looking for efficiencies," Ceci said, citing health-care spending as a particular concern.
"There needs to be more done on that file, and we will have to do more."
He said the province should return to balanced budgets by 2023.
'A revenue and a spending problem'
Legge said the time has come to have a serious discussion about how to restore balance in Alberta between revenue and spending.
"Alberta has for quite some time had both a revenue and a spending problem. The reality is that with a $10.3-billion deficit, we're not going to be able to cut our way down, we're not going to be able to raise revenue. We have to meet in the middle," he said.
"Sales tax, absolutely, should be on the table. We have no firm position on that, as yet."
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