This op-ed was originally published on Ricochet - English on March 29, 2017
The Alberta government recently released its 2016-17 budget to lay out its plan for the new fiscal year. The budget is relatively good news for public services, given the continuing impact of the global price of oil and the province’s anemic tax system on government revenues. However, the budget contains no changes that raise new money to begin addressing Alberta’s severe revenue shortfall. The shortage of revenue remains the elephant in the room that none of the major parties seem prepared to address.
Post-secondary tuition freeze
When tuition is frozen, it is important to pay attention to the amounts given to post-secondary institutions as operating grants. If those amounts are not increased to account for inflation, institutions will struggle to provide the same level of programming. Statistics Canada puts the rate of inflation for Alberta at 2.4 per cent, and funding for post-secondary operations increased by 2.8 per cent. In real terms, institutions saw a small increase in overall funding, while tuition rates in real dollars will actually decrease, making tuition slightly more affordable. It is a small step in the right direction.
Increase to child care
The increase in child care investments follows the government’s announcement in November 2016 that it will fund up to 18 Early Learning and Child Care Centres, which will create up to 1,000 new child care spaces that raise standards of affordability, accessibility, and quality. In addition to a $14 million increase to the provincial child care budget this year, the recent federal budget pledges money for provinces to further improve child care. The new federal money should go toward scale-up of the provincial government’s actions and increased training and support for child care workers, but we won’t learn those details until the provincial and federal levels of government come to an agreement, which is expected to happen this summer.
Substantial increase to home care funding
The budget increases funding for home care by $201 million, an increase of 11 per cent. However, it is not yet clear whether this funding will be used to fulfill the government’s election promise to “phase in a new model for expanded public homecare.” The previous government’s preference had been to offload the responsibility for home care by signing contracts with private organizations and corporations. The result was reduced transparency and quality of care. It is important that the expansion of homecare is done through the public system, either with Alberta Health Services or municipal governments.
Elimination of basic mandatory school fees
As announced in early March with the introduction of Bill 1 in the Alberta Legislature, this budget fulfills the government’s campaign promise to eliminate mandatory fees for instructional supplies and bussing. The announcement came a week after 14 organizations representing public school boards, support staff, teachers, and other groups released a proposal to phase out public funding of private schools (more on that below) and to reallocate the money to eliminate school fees and carry out three other campaign promises. The other three commitments to reduce class sizes, introduce a permanent school lunch program, and increase classroom supports remain unfulfilled, but the elimination of school fees represents significant progress to strengthen K-12 public education.
Cuts to acute care and ambulance services
At a minimum, budgets for basic frontline services should increase by the amount of inflation plus population growth, roughly 3 per cent this year. Instead, acute care and ambulance services actually saw their funding decreased by $49 million and $17 million, respectively. Mike Parker, president of the Health Sciences Association of Alberta, which represents the province’s paramedics, warned that the cut will result in more ambulance shortages in a system that already does not have enough resources to meet the needs of Albertans. As the province’s population grows, the budgets for acute care and ambulance services should be expanding, not shrinking.
Increased public funding to private schools
The public continues to provide massive subsidies to private schools, which actually saw an increase from $255 million to $263 million. While the increase approximately represents the growth in population plus inflation, it stands in stark contrast to the cuts to acute care and ambulance services. (continued)