Alberta’s deficit budget earns praise from contractors, skepticism from unions

In its first deficit budget in 16 years, the Alberta government anticipates dipping $4.7 billion into debt in an attempt to keep Albertans working through the recession.

Central to the budget is the province's capital plan that has $7.2 billion in infrastructure spending in 2009-2010, which is part of its three-year commitment to spend $23.2 billion building roads, schools, hospitals and other public infrastructure.

Bill Stewart, president of Merit Alberta, the province's open shop association, said he believes the budget will maintain momentum for Alberta.

"It's a reaffirmation that the government has committed to its infrastructure commitments it has made to Albertans," he said.

"There has been an ongoing need for infrastructure investment and the government appears to be stepping up to the plate."

The investment is a $1 billion or 4.5 per cent increase from the previous three-year total and will allocate $5.8 billion for provincial highways, $5.6 billion for municipalities, $3 billion for health facilities, $2.9 billion for schools and post-secondary facilities, $1 billion for affordable housing, $1.7 billion for climate change initiatives and $325 million in contributions for federal stimulus programs.

Although the government ramped up spending by $1 billion over its previous three-year capital plan, the majority of the increase will be spent on carbon capture initiatives.

Municipal infrastructure and provincial highway projects saw a $621 million and $457 million increase, but other parts of the plan saw decreases in spending compared to 2008-2011 levels.

Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservative government anticipates that this year's $7.2 billion infrastructure investment will support more than 80,000 jobs across a province struggling from lower energy revenues and the effects of the global recession.

Stewart said that he believes the province's decision to slash infrastructure spending in the wake of the post-9/11 market contraction was a mistake.

"This (the recently announced infrastructure spending) will come at a good time - there are more contractors that are out there bidding for work now, so it's a pretty competitive environment," he said.

But not everyone in the province sees the budget in a positive light.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL), said that while he was pleased the government resisted the temptation to revisit Klein-style cuts, he felt the budget fell short of the mark in helping Alberta's unemployed, particularly those in construction trades.

"Our big concern is that, despite it's packaging, this is not a stimulus budget - it is almost a carbon copy of last year's budget," he said.

Daily Commercial News and Construction Record, Fri Apr 17 2009
Byline: Stephen Dafoe

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