Morton warns Alberta's spending 'buffet' coming to an end

As Premier Ed Stelmach warned Thursday that Albertans should brace for a leaner budget, his new finance minister issued his own missive: The province's all-you-can-eat spending buffet is about to close.

Ted Morton, who relinquishes his Sustainable Resource Development portfolio to take over the fiscal file when the premier's new cabinet is sworn in today, said he's committed to making sure the deficit-strapped province delivers a balanced budget by 2012.

"The minister of Treasury Board admitted that for the past 10 years, government of Alberta spending had been like an all-you-can-eat buffet. The buffet is going to start getting closed down tomorrow," Morton, a fiscal conservative, said Thursday after a media conference with the premier and seven Calgary area cabinet ministers.

Alberta's 2010-11 budget will be delivered Feb. 9.

Stelmach said spending increases will be kept in line with population growth, plus inflation. According to the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, that increase could range between 2.95 per cent and 5.2 per cent, depending on which formula is used.

The Tory government has pledged to slash $2 billion from its budget to keep next year's projected multibillion-dollar deficit from climbing higher. Stelmach, however, declined to disclose where cuts will be made.

"There will be tightening of the budget," the premier told a radio talk show. "There will be tough decisions to be made and I'm confident we have the people in the right place."

On Wednesday, Stelmach overhauled his cabinet, bouncing three ministers to the backbenches and changing the face of 13 of 23 departments. Opposition parties, however, criticized the cabinet shuffle as timid, contending the changes are largely cosmetic.

"We see a lot of the same faces around the table," Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith noted.

"A lot of those people who are in cabinet were responsible for making the decisions that have resulted in so many problems in the last few years, whether it's the royalty framework or the problems with the health superboard or whether it's the return to deficit financing."

This is Stelmach's third cabinet lineup since he became premier in December 2006. He said he plans to shuffle his inner circle at least one more time before the next election.

New Energy Minister Ron Liepert, who leaves the hot-button health-care portfolio for another thorny file, conceded several government decisions have frustrated many traditional Tory backers in Calgary. Recent opinion polls show public support for the Conservatives has plunged, while the Wildrose Alliance's popularity has grown.

"I'm not going to deny that there isn't lashing out going on out there," Liepert said.

"But there isn't an election this spring. There isn't one next spring, and so we have an opportunity to let some of the tough policy decisions we've had to take work their way through the system."

One contentious policy decision that will soon receive a makeover is Alberta's new oil and gas royalty regime.
Stelmach said the findings of a competitiveness review examining royalties will be released by month's end. Liepert pledged to act swiftly on recommendations.

Shortly after the oil and gas review, the province will deliver a throne speech and budget. With widespread cuts expected, a new coalition of labour unions, education organizations and student groups -- called Join Together Alberta -- is gearing up for a fight.

Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan said the promotion of fiscal hawk Morton to Finance and Enterprise could signal a return to deep spending cuts reminiscent of the Ralph Klein era.

"Based on his track record and his reputation, it's pretty clear to us that Ted Morton is no friend to public services," McGowan said.

Both the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the Health Sciences Association of Alberta took aim at Morton's assertion the province has overspent in previous years.

"It's hyperbole," AUPE president Guy Smith said. "Government spending has not been out of control when you compare it with the influx of population."

Elisabeth Ballermann, president of the health sciences union, suggested most patients would disagree with Morton.
"If you're talking to Albertans sitting in wait lines, who can't find a family physician, who can't get an MRI . . . then I would suggest those people will tell you it hasn't been an all-you-can-eat buffet."

Spending watchdogs disagree, arguing the Alberta government has spent too much in the past -- and not always in the right areas.

Alberta Chamber of Commerce president Ken Kobly applauded the province's plan to craft a budget based on population growth, plus inflation. Kobly cautioned against cutting infrastructure spending. "Right now, capital expenditures are a bargain and we should take that into account," he said.

Calgary Herald, Fri Jan 15 2010
Byline: Renata D'Aliesio

Be the first to comment

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.