NDP is listening to all Albertans on formulating economic strategy

By Joe Ceci, MLA Calgary-Fort and Minister of Finance

Re: “Business groups shut out of NDP pre-budget meetings,” Chris Varcoe, Opinion, Jan. 21.

I am proud of the consultations that have been done throughout the province over the last number of months. And with respect, I do not believe Chris Varcoe has the whole picture on the nearly 20 consultations I have held in various forms.

It is no secret that Alberta has experienced the deepest recession in a generation.

We have chosen to hold the most comprehensive budget consultations in Alberta's history. Beginning in November, I held several targeted consultations with my cabinet colleagues. For example, an energy consultation held on Nov. 25 included two representatives from the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers. This is a group Varcoe wrote was excluded from budget consultations.

Across the various rounds of consultations we have reached Albertans from all walks of life, including business leaders from a number of different industries throughout our province. In such critical times, it makes sense for government to seek a cross-section of opinions and ideas. The voice of business leaders is critical as we aim to make life better for all Albertans.

As comprehensive and wide-ranging as these consultations have been, there is simply no way to reach everyone who has feedback to provide.

That is why Albertans can go to budget.alberta.ca and submit their thoughts online. In addition, the premier and I will be holding two telephone town halls to hear directly from as many Albertans as possible on Jan. 30 and 31.

As Alberta's finance minister and a proud Calgary MLA, I have met with the chamber of commerce and business leaders in our city on an ongoing basis. And we have worked together on important initiatives like new tax credits to drive innovation and create jobs.

We are planning additional consultation sessions also. My door is open to the chamber, to business and all Albertans, year round, seven days a week.

The feedback I have received from these latest consultations and those held toward the end of last year has been valuable. Albertans understand the fiscal reality of the province. They want access to quality public services and they want the same for their fellow Albertans, especially in difficult times.

I have heard clearly that running a deficit, rather than slashing deeply from our budget, is the prudent way to go.

It is the right way to maintain services, to act as a shock absorber during difficult times.

Our capital plan will also construct much needed infrastructure for our still-growing province while creating good jobs in the process.

However, government must always look for savings and efficiencies.

In both 2015 and 2016, over $250 million of in-year savings were found. In 2017, we will look to find another $250 million. Other steps such as salary freezes and hiring restraint are saving dollars while not compromising front-line care and services.

It is no secret that Alberta has experienced the deepest recession in a generation.

Oil prices have remained lower for longer and our oil-dependent economy suffered as a result. Two years ago, oil had peaked at $105 a barrel; a year ago, it sunk to well below $30. This led to a nearly 90 per cent drop in resource revenue.

Where Alberta had sometimes received upwards of $12 billion in royalties, we are reduced to around $2 billion for the last two years.

This year shows us signs of cautious optimism after two years of recession.

Our economy is projected to grow in 2017 and oil prices are slowly increasing, having now settled above $50 per barrel. Private investment is returning to the province with many firms, small and large, announcing new or ramping up existing capital plans.

These are all promising green shoots for our economy. These are good signs for business, but they are also great signs for Albertans.

Whether on the topic of the provincial budget or other issues that affect all Albertans, I will continue to have productive discussions focused on our common goal of moving Alberta forward. Together, we will ensure our province remains a great place to work, live and do business.

First published in the Calgary Herald January 24, 2017 .