Ten point four billion dollars.
That number, the projected size of the province’s budget deficit, will weigh heavily over the spring session of the Alberta legislature which starts Tuesday with the Speech from the Throne.
Political watchers will be listening closely for clues about how the governing NDP plans to address the slowdown in the economy, reeling due to plummeting oil prices.
Government house leader Brian Mason said the economy will be the focus of what he called a “robust” legislative agenda.
“Over the next few months, our government will continue to set its sights on job creation, and promoting economic development, diversification and getting a pipeline built to tidewater,” Mason said Monday.
The government won’t start to reveal how it plans to accomplish its goals until later today when the throne speech kicks off the sitting. The speech is expected to contain details of some government economic bills, while even more will be revealed on budget day, set to take place in the first two weeks of April.
Enabling bill for carbon tax
Mason said the government will introduce a bill enabling implementation of the $3-billion carbon tax, set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2017.
The bill will allow the government to offer rebates to individuals and small businesses, and create a new energy efficiency agency, Mason said.
The government will introduce essential services legislation, which will designate who can and cannot strike in the case of a public service labour dispute. The bill follows a ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada that upheld the right for workers to go on strike, meaning bans against all civil servants walking off the job are no longer legal.
A bill allowing MLAs to take maternity leave without financial penalty will also be introduced.
The government also plans to consolidate and eliminate some agencies, boards and commissions. Mason said the long-awaited infrastructure sunshine list, showing priorities for building capital projects, will also finally see the light of day this session.
“That was a lot harder than it looked,” admitted Mason, who is minister of infrastructure.
Some promises may be reviewed
The government revenue crunch, largely driven by lower oil prices, means the government may have to revisit some of its promises, including the minimum wage increase and job creation grants.
The grants, introduced in last October’s budget, included a maximum $5,000 to each employer that created a full-time job. But the program hasn’t started yet and the government admits it is now under review.
Nathan Cooper, house leader for the Official Opposition Wildrose Party, says the Alberta economy is at the top of his party’s agenda for the session.
Cooper says constituents are telling his caucus members they are concerned about the effect of the carbon tax on a struggling economy. They also want the government to fight harder for a new pipeline to get Alberta crude to the Atlantic or Pacific coasts.
The Wildrose likely won’t release a shadow budget, but they will have suggestions for the government, he added.
“We have been on record that even we wouldn’t balance the budget right now. And so we want to provide a number of recommendations that will start the government in the right direction,” he said.
“What we don’t need is this continual belief that every single dollar that the government has been spending is spent perfectly and wisely.”
NDP urged to get back to basics
Richard Starke, house leader for the Progressive Conservatives, says his caucus colleagues have been told that jobs and the economy are their biggest concerns.
Starke says the NDP needs to get back to basics.
“When we say basics, it means doing a more effective job and a concerted effort to rein in government spending, to commit to not borrowing for operational expenses,” Starke said, adding he wants to see a plan for paying back debt.
With Finance Minister Joe Ceci pegging the deficit in excess of $10 billion, “that’s incredibly concerning to us and also to all Albertans,” Starke said.
The session is scheduled to last until June 2, although Mason says that depends on the opposition. The fall sitting went a week longer than scheduled because of extended debate over Bill 6, the contentious farm safety legislation.