“Fiscal restraint” expected in next Alberta budget

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Recipients of funds from the Alberta public purse are gnawing fingernails to the bone as the government puts spending on hold and reviews the living daylights out of every provincial program.

Libraries and energy efficiency programs were just two items turning up on the in-limbo list this month.  And a major review on health operations and organizational efficiency is underway on Alberta Health Services by Ernst and Young, with an interim report expected in September.  Clearly the UCP government is bent on shaking up the province’s finances.

The purgatory will continue until late October, when the government finally unveils a budget which is expected to reflect “fiscal restraint”, according to Premier Jason Kenney.

The UCP government declared itself unwilling to instantaneously produce a budget after the spring election and chose to ramp up a big blue-ribbon panel fiscal review over the summer to set the stage for the delayed fall document.

Interim supply takes care of most of the ongoing demands to keep the province running, but belt-tightening rhetoric from Kenney and some random announcements on uncertainty over continued funding have amped up the general unease.

Take for instance a flurry of fear over the continued provincial funding of libraries.  The government told libraries it would advance 50 per cent of regular operating grants pending the finalization of the budget.

The immediate headlines across the province cried out that library funding is on hold.  Small town libraries, heavily dependent on the provincial grants, raised the alarm with much hand wringing.

UCP minister Kaycee Madu had to send out a clarification that the initial advisory wasn’t a cut, it was about ensuring the library boards had some dough to tide them over til the budget.

If the government had any doubt about the public sentiment on library funding, it now knows the small town base would be heartily displeased by a chop come the autumn.

No calming message turned up about the future funding of Energy Efficiency Alberta, however, even after the agency, which funds energy efficiency consumer and business rebates and incentives reported this month it pumped $850 million in economic growth into Alberta in two years.

The UCP environment minister is noncommittal on the continuation of the programs.  With no revenue from a carbon tax, which the UCP gonged quickly after the election, the agency isn’t likely to survive the budget review.

An odd glitch involving a longtime provincial scholarship program also set off clanging alarm bells.  Parents and high school grads went online on Aug. 1 to apply for the Rutherford Scholarship which offers up to $2,500 scholarships.  Applications were unavailable due to a “technical upgrade.”

The blowback was immediate and Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides went on Twitter to declare the Rutherford had not been cancelled.  The application process was reopened, and the government said it was a mistake that the Rutherford was included in the “upgrade”.

It’s not just soft and fuzzy social programs that are on hold either.  The UCP has put a small business tax credit program into limbo as well, sparking concern in the tech sector.  Applications are no longer being accepted even though the program still has money to help entrepreneurs in non-traditional sectors.

Amidst all this budget anxiety, the blue ribbon panel on the province’s finances, led by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon, is delivering its report to the government this week.

The report won’t be released to the public until September.

Kenney has been using the report as his excuse for the suspension of funding commitments.

“We haven’t made final decisions on anything.  We are waiting for Dr. MacKinnon’s panel to tell us exactly how bad the situation is, and we will have to respond accordingly,” he said at a recent press conference.

And ultimately it’s the provincial budget, not coming until after the fall legislature session starts on Oct. 22 that will tell the belt-tightening tale.

So provincial funding recipients are left in that nervous limbo, waiting for certainty on their financial future.

Photo Credit: CBC News

More from Kathy Kerr.     @kathkerr1

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