Finance minister justifies budget at fundraiser breakfast

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Alberta’s finance minister isn’t thrilled to be the first finance minister in years to bring in a tax increase.

But he was prepared to justify it to a crowd of Progressive Conservative party supporters at a fundraising breakfast held at the Sturgeon Valley Golf and Country Club on Tuesday morning.

“Our tax system will be adjusted so those who can pay more will,” Finance Minister Robin Campbell said on Tuesday, noting, as he did last week when the budget was released, that was reflective of the messaging heard from Albertans during pre-budget consultations.

The low price of oil has exposed some fundamental cracks in the way the provincial government does business, Campbell said. So his budget, which contains numerous increases to fees, fines and taxes, aims to wean Alberta off its addiction to spending oil revenue.

He praised the 10-year fiscal plan that was released as part of this year’s budget.

“This plan will give us the courage to make tough choices,” Campbell said.

Campbell addressed some of the criticism levelled at the budget that it doesn’t cut spending enough.

“I will say to you over the next three years we will cut almost $8-billion,” Campbell said.

He highlighted the new tax credits and other protections for lower income working families, and reminded his audience that Alberta still has the lowest taxes of anywhere in Canada.

He said the province needs infrastructure, and highlighted the $29-billion capital plan that will be in place for the next several years.

“Albertans have told us to keep building,” he said.

Campbell took questions from the crowd on topics ranging from housing for immigrants to retail gas prices to the new health levy to education property tax changes.

During a question about education tax, Campbell acknowledged that they would eventually need more staff to fill the new schools being built, but pointed to increases in the education budget just for teacher salaries and pensions.

“We’d like to be able to sit down and look what we can do with collective agreements to find efficiencies, make sure that taxpayers are getting the value for their dollar,” Campbell said. They’d like to have that conversation, Campbell said, but if the unions aren’t prepared to do anything different “then there will be job losses. That’s the sad piece of it.”

He did note that Premier Jim Prentice did recently have a sit-down with all the public sector unions.

“We will do everything we can to work with them and keep people working,” Campbell said, adding he wants to keep bright young people working.

Another question about the cut to the tax credit for charitable donations led Campbell to say they would monitor donation levels and if the cut, which returns the credit to what it was several years ago, was hurting, they would change it.

The crowd heard that Campbell doesn’t like debt, but he said it is a fallacy that Alberta is ever debt-free as it carries debt for institutions like post-secondary schools.

But while borrowing will soar over the next few years, he promised after surpluses return, predicted in the 2017-18 fiscal year, half the oil revenue would start going towards paying down that debt.

Jeff Johnson, the MLA for Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, called the budget a “budget of hope” in his closing remarks, telling the audience that Alberta would be in a much better fiscal place because of it.

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