Under threat of a pandemic shutdown, Alberta legislators engaged in marathon deliberations Tuesday night as the government raced to approve the 2020 budget.
A process that usually takes weeks was condensed into one, long day as the United Conservative Party government limited the time available for MLAs to ask questions and debate the $57-billion budget.
With the Opposition objecting, MLAs passed the budget at around 9 p.m. Tuesday.
Debate continued into the late evening as the legislature considered another bill that must pass for the government to implement some budget changes.
“Everything has changed,” Finance Minister Travis Toews said in the house earlier on Tuesday. “And again, we are focusing on what we can manage — focusing on the need in front of us.”
The government also amended the budget to include $500 million new health spending — about a two per cent increase — to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. That money will pay for testing, surveillance and care for people afflicted with the potentially fatal new virus.
Premier Jason Kenney Tuesday declared a provincial public health emergency due to the threat posed by the pathogen’s rapid spread. The virus thus far has sickened 97 Albertans, including five who were in hospital as of Tuesday afternoon.
With schools, daycares and colleges closed indefinitely and growing restrictions on large gatherings, government House leader Jason Nixon said Monday he was intent on passing the budget by the end of Tuesday.
“The number one thing that we can do right now to help Albertans is to make sure that the government is funded for months to come — to make sure that our health-care system is funded,” Nixon said Tuesday.
The Opposition NDP resisted the government’s measures to speed up the process. They estimated MLA queries that would usually take about 30 hours of committee time had been condensed into three. That was a blow to transparency, NDP MLAs said.
Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said Tuesday evening that even if the government updates the budget later in the year, those updates are not subject to the same scrutiny and disclosure as a typical budget process.
She estimated the budget would cost Albertans at least $20 billion more than projected, based on tanking oil prices, the costs of managing coronavirus and a $3.5-billion economic aid package the government intends to introduce later this week.
“This budget is a procedural shield so they can scurry into the dark corners and do whatever they want with the province’s finances for the next 12-to-14 months without reporting to anybody on it,” Notley said in an interview.
Opposition critics spent the three hours allotted Tuesday afternoon grilling ministers of finance, health and education. They asked how the government will reconcile planned health-care staff reductions in the budget with responding to a pandemic.
They asked how the government plans to diversify the economy beyond the oil and gas sector and why it is changing funding for young students with severe disabilities.
After the house approved the ministry-by-ministry list of government estimates, legislators considered the budget bill, which was Bill 6.
The government limited debate so just one member of the opposition could speak to Bill 6. Notley spoke against the budget for about an hour on Tuesday evening before legislators passed the bill.
Government and opposition agreed that assumptions about oil revenue, borrowing and spending have been thrown into disarray by a global oil price war, the COVID-19 pandemic and a likely recession.
The Opposition said the government should have approved temporary spending rather than approve a budget it says is full of inappropriate cuts to public services.
The government says it needs a stable supply of money in a time of exceptional uncertainty.
Kenney accused the NDP of playing politics during a crisis. He said in other provincial legislatures, parties are working together to prepare for the spread of COVID-19, but not the Alberta NDP.