EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney is telling municipal leaders that while Alberta is once again flush with oil cash, now is not the time to put spending into overdrive.
Kenney says oil revenues that are soaring can just as quickly fall, and the government needs to be prudent in its funding decisions.
“All of you have a very long shopping list,” Kenney told delegates at the Alberta Municipalities spring conference Thursday.
“We have to be prudent though.”
Kenney said the province will fund critical public services and programs, but must also deal with its debt of around $100 billion.
“We’ve been through you know the history of our boom-and-bust economy and the roller-coaster of provincial revenues,” he said.
“It would be terribly imprudent of us to assume that we are going to see these high and sustained energy prices for years to come.
“Who knows? This may be our last energy boom. We should act accordingly.”
The United Conservative Party government is forecasting a slim budget surplus for the upcoming fiscal year, but that number could grow by billions of dollars if oil prices stay at dizzying heights.
Kenney’s speech touted public spending announced in the recent budget, including almost $2 billion over the next three years to expand capacity, jobs and labs in the health system.
The budget forecasts a modest surplus of $500 million on $13.8 billion in non-renewable resource revenues.
But with oil prices recently at more than US$100 a barrel for the West Texas Intermediate benchmark, the final numbers next March may be billions of dollars higher.
Kenney also spoke briefly about Bill 4, legislation introduced by his government this week to restrict municipalities from imposing COVID-19 mask and vaccine passport mandates without provincial OK.
Kenney reiterated the goal is to set consistent provincewide policy on COVID-19.
“I think Albertans want us to move forward with clarity and unity when it comes to addressing what will inevitably be future waves and future variants (of COVID-19),” he said.
Joe Ceci, the NDP Opposition’s municipal affairs critic, told delegates Kenney and his government have broken trust by picking fights, failing to collaborate and even mocking municipal leaders.
Ceci focused on recent comments made by UCP backbencher Shane Getson, who, in the context of the Bill 4 debate, publicly compared municipal governments to “children,” adding “maybe it’s time for someone to get spanked.”
Ceci said while the leaders may not always like provincial decisions, mutual respect and collaboration would return under an NDP government.
“I can’t believe this needs to be said, but I’ll say it anyway: You are not the children of the province and you do not need to be spanked,” Ceci said to applause.
“We need to get back to first principles: respect for each other as elected leaders.”
Ceci was subbing in for NDP Leader Rachel Notley who is isolating after recently contracting COVID-19.
Alberta Municipalities is the umbrella organization representing towns, villages and cities across Alberta.
President Cathy Heron, asked by reporters about Kenney’s speech, said she appreciates oil money that rises high one day could be just as quick to recede, but added: “I do believe there is some wiggle room to continue to boost the economy and to continue to diversify the economy by continuing to invest in municipalities.”
She said Bill 4, while narrow in scope, still sets a precedent for further provincial overreach on municipal powers.
Heron said she was outraged by Getson’s remarks.
“It’s inappropriate to speak to a duly elected, democratic government as children that need to be spanked,” she said. “There are better ways to achieve outcomes in society than to belittle.”
Edmonton was the only municipality that still had a mask bylaw when Bill 4 was introduced Tuesday, but cancelled it hours later.
Edmonton Mayor Amarjeet Sohi, who took in Kenney’s speech, told reporters he remains frustrated by the lack of consultation on the bill.
But Sohi said there is more work to be done on other issues, including social housing and help for those with mental health and addictions problems.
“I want to move on to continue to look for opportunities to reset our relationship and strengthen our relationship with the provincial government,” he said.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 10, 2022.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press