Budget disappoints local groups
Tight budget puts squeeze on classroom
By: Kevin Ma
| Posted: Friday, Mar 08, 2013 05:15 pm
This year’s tight provincial budget could mean bigger classes, fewer teachers in local schools and fewer summer jobs for students, say local experts.
Finance Minister Doug Horner tabled the 2013-14 provincial budget Thursday. It features few spending increases, a lot of cuts, and a $1.97-billion deficit.
This has been a highly anticipated budget, Horner said in the legislature, one he billed as a “watershed” and a “turning point” for the province.
“Our current fiscal situation means we are tasked with making some necessary decisions and some tough but thoughtful choices,” he said.
All but six departments saw budget cuts, with the rest seeing only small increases in funding. The province will suck about $2.1 billion out of its Sustainability Fund to balance the budget, leaving the fund with a mere $691 million, and borrow about $4.3 billion for new infrastructure.
That borrowing takes advantage of low interest rates, said Lynda Moffat, president of the St. Albert & District Chamber of Commerce, builds for future growth and boosts job creation.
“We have to acknowledge the fact that we’re kind of in a tough time right now,” said Moffat, who approved of the budget overall.
While there were cuts, those cuts were a lot less drastic than those of the Klein days, she said.
The budget includes no new tax measures, despite suggestions from some sectors that the province consider a sales tax.
That’s great for businesses, Moffat said, as it brings more stability.
“The government would be killed if we came in with a sales tax now,” she said, as the province had yet to seriously debate its implications. “I think people need to have that discussion.”
Moffat also approved of the province’s plan to start saving money. The province plans to stop spending revenue created by the Heritage Savings Trust Fund and grow it to about $16.2 billion by 2016 from its current $14.9 billion. The Sustainability Fund – to be renamed the Contingency Account – should be back to $4.5 billion by then as well.
Mayor Nolan Crouse said there weren’t many surprises in the budget, but that he was still awaiting details on some specifics, such as money for the last phase of Ray Gibbon Drive. He approved of the $19.8-million boost to the Regional Collaboration Program, which he hoped would support co-operation between St. Albert and Sturgeon County.
The budget lists about $896 million for the Municipal Sustainability Initiative (MSI) fund – the same as last year, but less than the $1 billion previously pledged by the province.
That means St. Albert will get about $12 million this year instead of the $20 million the city had been promised, Crouse said.
“We have projects that will not proceed,” he said, but since council had budgeted based on a $12 million MSI grant, this change won’t affect the city’s plans for this year.
The province plans to spend $503 million over the next three years to build 50 new schools – a move Crouse supported.
“I’m pretty optimistic that St. Albert will be on the list as one of those 50 new schools,” he said.
While the budget ups education spending by about $44 million, it also freezes base instruction grants per student for the next three years. It also features no new money to hire teachers or cover salary increases that might come out of current contract talks, and nothing for all-day kindergarten.
That grant freeze is essentially a cut, as wages and board costs rise every year, said Jacquie Hansen, local Catholic board trustee and president of the Alberta School Boards Association.
The budget also eliminates a $22-million grant program school districts used to pay for gas.
Local boards will face tough decisions as a result, Hansen continued.
“It may mean bigger class sizes. It may mean program cuts,” she said.
And she could not rule out layoffs.
Ellen Snaith, president of the Alberta Teachers’ Association (ATA) for the St. Albert Public district, criticized the proposed end to the Alberta Initiative for School Improvement fund. The public board had previously used this $41 million fund to start a new student literacy program.
“Where’s this money supposed to come from?” Snaith wondered.
School boards will have to contend with about 12,000 new students next year, Snaith said, referring to ATA estimates.
“If there’s no increase in base funding, how are these students going to be integrated into the system?” she said.
The budget also eliminates the popular Student Temporary Employment Program (STEP) – a $7-million fund that encouraged Albertans to hire summer students.
That grant made it possible for the Big Lake Environment Support Society to hire students to run its summer nature centre, and was a major part of the centre’s funding, said president Cat McDonald.
“We’ll have to find other grants to fill that role, and we’ll be able to, but it won’t be easy,” she said.
The loss of this grant will mean one less student position at the St. Albert Farmers’ Market and less work experience for youth, said Moffat, who felt the grant provided a meaningful impact.
“You’re giving these young people the most incredible opportunity to be enriched in the business world and learn so, so much,” she said. “That’s what I view as the biggest loss.”
Horner is set to speak about the budget to the Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater PC Association Monday morning in Sturgeon County.
Budget documents can be found at budget2013.alberta.ca.