Category: Provincial Politics

Kenney criticized for $16,000 flight for other premiers

EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney spent more than $16,000 of taxpayer money to fly Conservative premiers and their spouses on a charter flight, NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley said Thursday.

Notley brought the accusation to light during a meeting of the Standing Committee on Alberta’s Economic Future.

She said Kenney chartered a flight from Calgary, where the premiers and their spouses were attending Stampede in July, to Saskatoon.

Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs were on that flight along with Bob McLeod, former Premier of the Northwest Territories.

“I don’t think you needed to bribe them. Are you seriously saying that in order to get people to sign off on communique that looks a great deal like the communique that had been written previously, you need to pay for them to fly around the country and drag them out to a party at the Calgary Stampede?”

Kenney defended the expenses by saying it was no big deal and that he was not ashamed to spend money on improving relationships with other governments.

“I’m going to be spending more on travel expenses to get around the country,” he told Notley, “To St. John’s, Halifax, Iqaluit, Yellowknife, Whitehorse, Ottawa to strengthen those relationships and this is a promise made and a promise kept.”

Notley calls the money spent unacceptable for taxpayer dollars and asked Kenney to pay the funds back.

Alberta ends program for firefighters rappelling from helicopters

The Alberta government is ending a program for firefighters who rappel from helicopters to fight forest fires.

Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen says in a statement that crews have been rappelling into locations in less than two per cent of Alberta wildfires.

Dreeshen says the province will work with the firefighters to place them on other crews if they want next summer.

He says the United Conservative government is putting a priority on two other groups of firefighters who are used more often.

Helitack crews land as close as they can to a fire and hike into it, and Firetack crews are made up of contract workers.

NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley says the decision to get rid of the rappel unit puts public safety and people’s homes at risk.

“For the last 40 years, incredibly brave and highly trained Albertans have rappelled out of helicopters, sometimes right on top of the fire, and fought the flames that otherwise we could not reach,” she said in a release.

A firefighter, who does not want to be identified because speaking out might affect his career, said rappel crews are better able to get access to remote areas and can split up to tackle multiple small fires burning at the same time.

The firefighter added that the eight-person crews are also helpful in creating helipads in the brush so that more personnel and equipment can be brought in.

“It’s really hamstringing our ability to get that initial action.”

There were about 65 people in the rappel program, which requires members to weigh no more than 180 pounds and go through rigorous training.

Alberta introduces bill affecting pay rules for doctors, public-sector workers

EDMONTON – Alberta is proposing new legislation that could affect where doctors work and how much they get paid as well as allow the government more freedom to bring in replacement workers for union jobs.

The amendments are contained in one of two omnibus bills introduced by Finance Minister Travis Toews.

The bill proposes that the government be allowed to cancel its master agreement with the Alberta Medical Association and give the province power to compel new doctors wanting to bill the health system to work in rural areas.

Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative government is looking to find savings to meet a commitment to end Alberta’s multibillion-dollar budget deficits by 2023.

The government is relying on a recent panel report that said Alberta’s doctors are making far more than other provinces and that the main barrier to pay reform is the master agreement.

The bill also gives the government the option to bring in replacement workers to fill essential services during contract negotiations.

NDP health critic disappointed with no capital dollars for Red Deer Regional Hospital

The NDP Official Opposition’s health critic is voicing his disappointment with the lack of any immediate capital funding for expansion of Red Deer Regional Hospital in the provincial budget.

David Shepherd, MLA for Edmonton-City Centre, says it’s concerning that only ‘planning’ dollars has been allocated at this time.

RELATED: Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre expansion not part of Alberta’s budget

RELATED: Veer remains cautiously optimistic for hospital, shelter funding from province

“It’s certainly a concern I know has been out there in the community for quite some time, dating back to well before we came into government, under the PC era, be it concerns about both the hospital capacity and, of course, the catheterization lab,” says Shepherd.

“I know that Sarah Hoffman when she was the Minister of Health met with folks in the area, including those who had offered to make a fairly significant private donation to try to help kick-start the process, and in 2018, we did commit in that budget and delivered, $1 million to begin the planning process.”

Shepherd describes the Government’s current budget as a real loss of momentum for the project.

“Certainly I do have to commend MLA Stephan, he has spoken in the House and raised the issue, and indeed MLA Ron Orr from Lacombe-Ponoka has spoken about it as well,” notes Shepherd.

“Of course we recognize that Red Deer’s hospital is serving a number of communities in and around central Alberta. The question is whether the concerns they’re raising are being heard by their colleagues at the Cabinet table.”

Shepherd says it boils down to a question of government priorities.

“The first step they took was giving away $4.5 billion to big corporations,” he exclaims. “From there, they basically created themselves a hole in the budget that they’ve been struggling to fill. At least committing even a nominal sum to be able to continue planning, giving some indication in the capital plan that this continues to be a priority – some form of concrete action to show that they were moving on this issue.”

With another provincial budget anticipated next spring, Shepherd hopes the UCP will provide a more clear indication then of what their plans are for Red Deer Regional Hospital and central Alberta.

“We see there’s a cut of $11 million for EMS services, so for ambulance services,” adds Shepherd. “That’s particularly problematic in rural areas where they already have some struggles. That’s one of the issues with lacking a catheterization lab in Red Deer, is that individuals who do have a heart-attack, need to be rushed into Red Deer, and then from there, down to Calgary, so cutting ambulance services is not going to help in bettering that situation.”

Safe Harbour disappointed over continued wait for shelter funding

Last March, Red Deer was promised a $7 million, 120-bed emergency homeless shelter by the then NDP Government of Alberta.

That funding was not included in the UCP’s first budget tabled Thursday.

Mayor Tara Veer reiterated there is a need for 24/7 shelter in our city.

“We’ve discussed this need with the Minister of Seniors and Housing and we will be working alongside her in the coming months to convey the scope and needs in Red Deer to ensure it is included in future budgets,” she said.

RELATED: Homeless shelter funding on hold pending UCP budget

Kath Hoffman, executive director at Safe Harbour Society, appreciates the mayor’s comments but is nonetheless disappointed with the lack of funding.

“We’ve been trying to get the resources we need for shelter for 14 years, and the crisis that we’re experiencing right now has just stretched us beyond our capacity. The bandaid resources we’ve had to apply have fallen off,” Hoffman said.

RELATED: Fingers crossed for continued provincial funding for Red Deer’s warming centre

“They know our need for sure. The numbers speak for themselves, including the fact that Red Deer has always had the lowest shelter spaces per capita,” she added.

“It takes the wind out of your sails, but it’s nothing we’re not used to. We’ll adjust our course and it’ll be steady as she goes.”

Hoffman also noted that provincial funding has been extended by six months for Safe Harbour to keep the doors of its temporary warming centre open. Funding from the previous government ran out September 30.

Meantime, The City of Red Deer continues to clean up rough sleeper camps, with $400,000 budgeted in 2019. From January to May 2019, 121 camps were tended to, twice as many compared to the same period in 2018.

RDC, students set to deal with provincial budget fallout

The provincial budged tabled Thursday by the UCP Government includes an operational funding cut of $1.2 million for Red Deer College this year.

There will be a reduction this fiscal year (2019-2020) of five per cent to the Campus Alberta Grant. Though reductions to each institution in the province vary, the reduction to RDC’s grant is said to be 2.4 per cent.

RDC president Dr. Peter Nunoda says the budget impacts come as no surprise.

“We knew some measures were going to be taken, and now we have a sense of what that direction is,” he said Friday. “It clearly creates challenges for the post-secondary sector, but I can say for Red Deer College that we’re prepared to meet those challenges.”

Nunoda says RDC will make the necessary in-year reductions to deal with those challenges.

“I would say on the positive side of the ledger, this only reinforces the notion that we have to seek-out more external revenue,” he explains. “We are going to become more active in the international education field, and so we have a target of 500 new, international students for September of 2020. So that’s in-part to address the gap that’s being created in our operational funding.”

Additionally, the Infrastructure Maintenance Program (IMP) will be suspended for one year and restored in Budget 2020 – impacting RDC to the tune of $2.1 million in its ability to do facility upgrades and routine maintenance.

“Upgrading classrooms and that sort of thing, and some of the repairs we may need to do may need to be put off,” Nunoda notes. “But we don’t have major capital projects cued-up at this point in time, so that’s really not an impact for us.”

All other grants at RDC, such as the Post-Secondary Mental Health, Students with Disabilities, and Health Workforce Action Plan, are generally maintained in the budget. The Apprenticeship Technical Training Grant also remains relatively unchanged.

The most direct impact to students is the lifting of the five-year freeze on tuition rates.

Over the next three years, increases will be permitted to a maximum average of seven per cent, per year. Any further increases in year four will be determined based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

“We will be looking carefully at our tuition structure,” admits Nunoda. “But I will say this, we’ve been in constant contact with our students’ association. We want to approach this with full transparency and get to a place I hope of mutual understanding about how costs have risen, and how we need to meet that, in addition to the cuts to our operational grant.”

Students’ Association president Brittany Lausen admits she and her peers are disappointed with the amount the tuition cap has been raised.

“However, we are grateful that the Minister heard the students in wanting predictability in tuition, like keeping a cap,” says Lausen, “but of course tuition is rising significantly more than initially set out by Bill 19.”

Lausen acknowledges that student supports and services are largely maintained with the new budget, but admits student will feel the pinch over the next few years.

“I definitely see potential in our student food bank perhaps getting busier. I could see as a way to manage the cuts, institutions increasing other auxiliary costs such as parking and residence rent, or if students have to stay another year working in order to afford post-secondary.”

College officials say the province’s vision for the post-secondary system is that institutions have less reliance on tax dollars, create other sources of revenue, be flexible to compete globally, have meaningful links with employers, foster greater transparency and accountability, and provide the most generous student assistance in the nation.

As a result, Nunoda says RDC will be looking closely over the course of the next month at how more savings can be achieved, and potentially where new revenue can be added.

“I’m very confident with the way that we have started down an entrepreneurial path,” he explains. “That we have opportunities that haven’t been explored previously and that we can potentially leverage to address the challenge.”

The good news is that Thursday’s budget does not affect RDC’s path towards becoming a university.

“We’ll be moving forward. We’ll try to ensure that education remains affordable, and that there is accessibility to our institution for as many of our regional students as want to attend here,” Nunoda says.

Veer remains cautiously optimistic for hospital, shelter funding from province

Mayor Tara Veer says she was disappointed to see the provincial budget tabled Thursday contain no funding for either Red Deer Regional Hospital Expansion or a 24/7 shelter in our city.

But she expressed cautious optimism Friday morning that funding for both projects will come in the next provincial budget in late March or early April.

“If we weren’t getting indications that there was at least support in principle for those projects, then I think our response would be very different,” she said during a news conference on Friday. “But I think, obviously, at some point we need to see on those specific files.”

Veer essentially said she’s willing to give the UCP Government the benefit of the doubt given they’ve only been in power for about six months.

Veer feels particularly confident in regards to the 24/7 shelter for the next budget. The previous NDP Government had committed $7 million for a shelter in Red Deer prior to being defeated in the provincial election in May.

Securing hospital expansion funding, she cautions, will take a measured approach.

“Our community really needs to pull together in terms of what we need to see in the short-term, medium and long-term so that we can have a phased implementation plan because if we hold out for one significant capital amount then we may continue to see deferrals,” she explained.

Veer is pleased to see the province maintain its funding commitments for Red Deer College’s transition to becoming a university and for the Red Deer Justice Centre. She also says an additional $50 million over four years for the Alberta Law Enforcement Response Team (ALERT) will be a welcome boost to local crime fighting efforts.

Red Deer will continue advocating for several new Crown Prosecutors from the previous announcement of 50 for the province as a whole. It is also hoped that Red Deer will receive some of the previously announced 4,000 addictions treatment spaces as The City continues to work with the province on implementing mental health and addiction services and opioid response strategies.

All in all, The City of Red Deer says there were very few surprises in Thursday’s budget and that they will work to maintain the programs and services citizens expect them to provide.

The City had already accounted for a drop in Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) funding in preparing its capital plan. MSI funding will remain the same in 2019-20 before decreasing by nine per cent the following year.

Municipalities will also see a province-wide reduction of $30 million in grants in place of property taxes paid by the Provincial Government by 2023 compared to the amounts received in 2018. The amount will be reduced by 25 per cent in 2019-2020 with a further reduction of 25 per cent the following year.

Chief Financial Officer Dean Krejci says the impact on property taxes won’t be known until April once the municipal operating budget and provincial education requisition have been determined.

Red Deer-South MLA talks budget

I. Budget Overview

Yesterday the Government of Alberta delivered the 2019-2020 provincial budget (“Budget”). The Budget period is April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020. This Budget is, in part, a “stub period” budget, with costs and programs inherited from the prior NDP Government during this period.

The Budget seeks to strengthen Alberta as the best place in Canada to start and grow a business.

Sound principles inform sound policies. Living within one’s means is a sound principle. This Government was elected to balance the budget. Compare that to the NDP whose operating deficits, in only 4 years, reached $32 billion. This burden for our children exceeds the cumulative value of all homes in the City of Red Deer.

The MacKinnon Report (www.alberta.ca/mackinnon-report-on-finances.aspx on Alberta’s Finances, “Report”) also informed the Budget. This Report concluded that a principal cause of our deficit is that Alberta taxpayers significantly pay more for public services than in other provinces. Therefore, Alberta needs to focus more on reducing the cost of providing public services as opposed to reducing public services themselves.

Albertans should not be forced to pay more, and receive less, for public services. It would be irresponsible and contrary to the public interest to maintain this status quo.

We cannot have sustainable public services for our children if Government is incapable of living within its means. The Budget is moving in the right direction, charting a course to balance by 2022-2023. However, in these uncertain times, and with a cultural commitment for continuous improvement, as circumstances evolve or new situations arise, it may be necessary to make additional, proactive adjustments to address emerging imperatives and eliminate the deficit by this time.

II. Red Deer Regional Hospital

Over the past decade, prior Governments have not treated Central Alberta and the Red Deer Regional Hospital fairly. Capital funding over the past 10 years has left Central Alberta with a profound deficit compared to the rest of the province for hospital infrastructure. We are grateful for the public service provided by concerned members of our community helping to identify and quantify these failures: see for example www.demandcare.ca.

Minster LaGrange and myself have forcefully raised this issue in public, including in the Alberta Legislature, with our Health Minister Tyler Shandro, and with Alberta Health Services.

Our Premier committed to address this issue as follows:

“When it comes to determining what are the key healthcare infrastructure priorities, that should be done in a non-political way based on the local needs and the age of the hospital and the pressure on that local hospital. We would make an objective assessment about which of Alberta’s hospitals have to come first on the list. But Red Deer hospital would absolutely be on our healthcare infrastructure list and we would proceed forward with that as soon as possible.”

That is a principled approach.

In terms of progressing matters, Minister Shandro approved the Clinical Services Plan for the Red Deer Regional Hospital in August. Securing this approval means we can move to the next step, and our Government is developing the required Business Case for submission and approval.

This Business Case will develop project scope requirements, infrastructure development options, detailed capital and operating cost estimates and project schedules. This is required for Alberta Health’s Capital Plan submission for funding consideration, and completion will occur in 2020.

While this Budget does not reflect the results we were hoping for, we are heartened to see progress and a path forward for more equitable support in the Red Deer Regional Hospital in support of the public interest.

We will be valiant in pressing this issue forward.

III. Drug and Health Addictions

In closing, we wish to report on another pressing imperative in our community: opioid and other drug addictions and their resulting social and economic harms. What we heard from families and businesses in our community during the Supervised Consumption Site Panel hearing in Red Deer this fall is that the status quo is not acceptable. This Panel will release its findings before the end of 2019.

Applying the findings of the Panel, with reference to the needs in our community we look forward to seeing real course corrections, with a principled, balanced approach helping those seeking to become free of their addictions and supporting families and businesses in our community.

Jason Stephan
MLA, Red Deer-South

EDITOR’S NOTE: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of rdnewsNOW or the Jim Pattison Broadcast Group. Suggestions and letters to the editor can be sent to news@rdnewsNOW.com.

Reaction pours in to Alberta Budget

Here’s what various stakeholders are saying in response to the 2019 Alberta Budget that was presented on Thursday.

Red Deer and District Chamber of Commerce

“What we are seeing is a budget that sets the tone for the next four years,” says Reg Warkentin, the chamber’s policy and advocacy manager.

“We have a new provincial government that inherited an inflated expense sheet along with severe revenue limitations. They’re taking a measure and balanced approach to reducing spending without shocking services recognizing Alberta spends far more per capita on programs relative to other provinces.

“We appreciate this government’s move to a low-rate, broad based tax system with a focus on competitiveness with key initiatives like the job creation tax cut, changes to capital cost allowance, and efforts to reduce red tape and regulations.

“Funding commitments to mental health, addictions, and tackling the opioid crisis will make a meaningful impact on the social issues negatively affecting our city.

“Locally, we were disappointed not to see a commitment to expand the Red Deer hospital. However it is promising that funds remain allocated to project planning.

“Overall we feel this is one of the best budgets Alberta has seen in many year’s, taking important steps to battle macroeconomic headwinds and export limitations by creating a competitive business environment conducive to startups and growth.”

Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB)

“Today’s budget delivers tough, but much needed medicine. Our province faces an incredibly difficult fiscal situation that was created by years of unsustainable government spending. Thankfully, the new government has accepted it cannot spend in such a reckless manner,” says Richard Truscott, Vice-President, Alberta and BC.

“Not only has the government had an enduring overspending problem, it has also had a big budgeting problem. Time after time, our political leaders simply could not restrain themselves from spending whatever revenue was coming in, and then some.”

“There needs to be a long-term plan in place to make sure future growth in the operating budget is affordable, sustainable, and will deliver the desired results. It may also be time to take a serious look at a legislated limit on annual increases in overall operating spending,” concluded Truscott.

Alberta Urban Municipalities Association (AUMA)

“Despite a lack of consultation from the government on a new municipal funding framework, AUMA will continue to advocate for a framework that supports the province’s financial goals while also meeting the needs and responsibilities of our communities,” says AUMA President Barry Morishita.

“While the province reduces its budget by 2.8 per cent over the next four years, it has proposed reducing our infrastructure funding by almost 10 times that amount. With municipal governments currently facing a multibillion-dollar infrastructure deficit, these funding cuts will lead to crumbling community infrastructure or higher taxes for property owners for years to come.”

Additionally, AUMA is extremely disappointed with the government’s decision to replace the City Charters Fiscal Framework Act, backtracking on their campaign promise.

NDP Official Opposition

“What we saw today is Premier Kenney’s plan to make you pay more and get less,” NDP Leader Rachel Notley said. “What he didn’t tell us was that every single Albertan was going to pay more in income tax.”

“There’s less money for acute care in hospitals and if you live in Red Deer, and were counting on a badly needed re-build of the hospital, you’re out of luck,” Notley said. “Edmonton’s first new hospital in decades years will now take at least another decade if not more. This is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Friends of Medicare

“When a government is not able to provide health care to meet the needs of a growing population, it is a cut,” says Sandra Azocar, executive director of Friends of Medicare. “As one goes down line by line through the budget, what we’re seeing is a decrease in most areas of the health care budget.”

“Albertans do not stop needing health care based on whether the economy is down or on an upward trend,” says Azocar. “The most vulnerable and least powerful will pay the greatest price. But in the end, we all pay the price of growing inequality and insecurity.”

“The measure of a budget should be not some bogus measure of fiscal health, but rather how it will contribute to human health now and in the future,” says Azocar. “Behind all the stats, health policies, and regulations, there are people who depend on not having to worry if they can afford access to quality health care based on need, and not on their ability to pay.”

Unifor

“Austerity has been widely discredited but that won’t stop Jason Kenney from his old habits,” said Jerry Dias, Unifor National President. “He cannot cut his way to prosperity.”

“This budget is not about balancing the books-that could happen in time without Jason Kenney. This budget is an ideological exercise in cutting the services and wages families depend on,” said Dias.

Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE)

“During the provincial election this spring, Jason Kenney promised to ‘maintain or increase’ public services. Today’s budget breaks that promise,” says CUPE Alberta President Rory Gill.

“Kenney is not freezing spending on health care and education, cuts will come. They will come as costs increase and services are squeezed as a result. Doctor’s fees and other contracts will have to be honoured, and that means money will be taken from front line services. Longer wait times, poorer care, fewer nurses with more patients is what we can expect.

“In fact, in this budget – Jason Kenney is cutting nurses, rural doctors, drug services and ambulance services. These are real cuts that will hurt all Albertans.

“In education, it’s the same story – as the population grows, school districts will be squeezed. In turn, they will put more kids into each class, and hire fewer teachers, support staff, custodial workers and educational assistants to try and keep things going.

“The Kenney budget cuts Educational Assistants, it cuts funding for class size reduction, and it cuts funding to keep school fees low.

“In what universe is this ‘maintaining services in health and education?’”

Public Interest Alberta

“Albertans know that cuts hurt, and with cuts to nearly everything, all Albertans are going to feel the pain,” said Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta. “At the same time, the wealthiest corporations are getting a big tax cut, benefiting their already-wealthy shareholders around the world. This budget makes working Albertans pay to make the rich even richer.”

Some of the most significant cuts are being made in the area of post-secondary education, with nearly $212 million being cut from the budget, and revenue from tuition payments rising by nearly $54 million.

“Cutting this much out of post-secondary education means tuition rates will skyrocket, while the number of educational options and quality of those options will decrease,” said French. “If we are serious about building the economy of the future and having a well-educated population overall, we should be heading in the opposite direction, making investments to expand educational opportunities.”

Highlights from Alberta budget 2019

Alberta’s United Conservative government tabled its budget Thursday. Here are some of the highlights:

* $8.7-billion deficit on revenues of $50 billion.

* Debt projected to rise from the current $63 billion to $72 billion by the spring, on track to reach $93 billion by 2023.

* Three more years of deficits with projected surplus of $584 million in 2023.

* The public sector to be reduced by almost eight per cent over four years, mainly through attrition.

* No budgeted pay increases for public sector workers.

* Program spending to drop 2.8 per cent over four years to $47 billion by 2023.

* Health funding maintained as $20.6 billion.

* Education funding maintained at $8.2 billion.

* Corporate income tax revenue to fall by $700 million to $4.2 billion in 2019-20.

* Operational spending to be reduced by 0.5 per cent this year and eventually by 2.8 per cent to $47.1 billion by 2023.

* A one-time payment of $1.5 billion to end the crude-by-rail shipment plan announced earlier this year by the former NDP government.

* $1.8 billion in new capital funding for schools and new modular classrooms.