The first budget from the Alberta United Conservative Party is pretty much what was expected.
The government is tightly controlling expenditures, with plans to whittle back public sector wages, shift more spending responsibility to municipalities, and cut post-secondary funding.
And corporations are getting a pretty major tax break.
All that is the UCP formula for a way back to a balanced budget.
But provincial budgets can also telegraph a way forward to sustainable economic health, and that part of the equation is missing.
There is little vision for how to diversify the provincial economy away from its dependence on oil and gas.
Finance Minister Travis Toews told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce in his post-budget address that the province is focused on wrestling with expenditures this budget cycle and will look at diversifying its revenues in the future.
"We believe that is the most defensible approach to ensure that capital flows in the right places, that we diversify and grow our economy in a sustainable way, that government isn't picking winners and losers."
Part of that response addresses the always thorny question of whether Alberta needs to establish a sales tax.
But saying that the government shouldn't be picking winners and losers ignores the fact that the big winner in terms of government spending and focus has already been picked and it does nothing to diversity the economy. As always energy is central to everything in the budget.
The energy department's overall budget is an outlier in the sea of cuts, expanding from 2018-2019's $552 million to $601 million for 2019-2010. The economic development department, which deals with the pesky rest of the economy, slides from $349 million to$286 million.
The budget rhetoric gives a nod to the promise of tech industries, particularly in the artificial intelligence realm.
"Over the next four years, we will spend over $34 million on initiatives related to artificial intelligence in groups like the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii), autonomous systems and cyberinfrastructure supports. In addition to this, Alberta Innovates is committed to advancing data enabled innovation and digital technology for business with $6.5 million in programing and supports to accelerate investments in emerging technology," trumpets the budget.
But the Alberta Innovates program suffers a $39 million cut this year in the budget. And the University of Alberta, the centre of the think tanks that spinoff the commercial aspects of the artificial intelligence sector, is getting a 6.9 per cent budgetary haircut.
Although Edmonton is a recognized centre for AI research, U of T and McGill are in hot competition for talent and development in the field.
Instead of 'picking winners', the budget leans heavily on its corporate tax reduction, from 12 to eight per cent over four years, to reduce unemployment in the province.
But for little tech startups with negligible revenue to tax in the early years, the tax reduction dollars aren't much of a boost.
And some directed programs aimed at tech and knowledge industries have been axed in favour of that catchall tax cut.
For instance, the Interactive Digital Media Tax Credit, which offered a 25 per cent incentive to companies in the video game and animation sector has been eliminated. Some firms which relocated to Alberta in recent years because of the incentive say they would not have come without the tax credit.
Another whole sector which gets scant attention is agriculture and particularly the growing plant protein sector. Alberta farmers have caught on to the galloping international demand for plant protein, growing vast quantities of yellow peas, lentils, chick peas and fava beans. But there is a gap in value added processing and ingredient manufacture in Alberta which could open up the sector for the future.
There is very little in the budget relative to agriculture, let alone the potential in the protein-focused agrifood industry. Instead, pages and pages of the budget parse the implications of every possible scenario relative to building or not building oil and gas pipelines.
At some point the government needs to consider the implications of leaving Alberta's economic future in the non-renewable resource basket. Maybe some vision will be revealed in future budgets once the UCP is happy with its cost-cutting measures. But in a global economy moving in new directions more and more quickly, Alberta may find itself left behind.
Photo Credit: Jason Franson, The Canadian Press