The Alberta government had no choice but to run another big deficit and go deeper into debt in order to defend key services such as education and health care, Premier Rachel Notley said on Friday in her first public comments since the province's 2017-18 budget was tabled.
The budget forecasts the deficit will be $10.3 billion, half a billion dollars less than last year. Provincial debt is expected to climb to $45 billion this year, and reach $71 billion by 2019-20.
Notley answered sharp criticism from opposition parties during a news conference at Monsignor Fee Otterson Elementary and Junior High School.
The premier was there to promote her government's budget commitment to reduce school fees by 25 per cent and build 10 new schools.
"Anyone who says you can get to balance in two years or three years is talking about laying off thousands and thousands of teachers, not moving ahead with school construction, canceling hospital projects, laying off nurses," Notley said.
During Thursday's budget speech, Finance Minister Joe Ceci said the government may return to balanced budgets by 2023-24 at earliest.
The budget allocates $9.2 billion for capital spending, which includes $400 million over four years to build a new hospital in Edmonton.
The fiscal blueprint also includes plans to open 10 new schools, including five in Calgary and four in Edmonton.
Albertans still going through tough times
Opposition parties are slamming the budget for ballooning the provincial debt.
The Wildrose has said the massive debt threatens to send Alberta over a fiscal cliff.
The Progressive Conservatives say the NDP is forcing debt on future generations.
Notley said compared to other provinces, Alberta's debt-to-GDP ratio is the lowest in Canada. Investing in public institutions helps boost Alberta's economy, which is still going through challenging times, she said.
"As much as the opposition would like to pretend that everyone can have it all, you have to make hard choices," Notley said. "And the choice that we made very clearly is that we were going to invest in families. That we were not going to make a deficit of schools falling apart."
Education Minister David Eggen said the province will announce on Tuesday details about the new schools it intends to build and upgrades to existing ones.