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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney amongst MLAs after the the speech from the throne was delivered, in Edmonton, on Feb. 22, 2022.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Alberta’s coming budget will be designed to buffer health care capacity, expand charter schools and address higher utility bills, the government said Tuesday, as provincial politicians returned to the legislature.

The governing United Conservative Party outlined priorities in its Throne Speech, delivered by Lieutenant-Governor Salma Lakhani. The speech noted the budget for fiscal 2022–23, scheduled for release on Thursday, will reflect a “dramatic improvement” in Alberta’s finances. The surging price of oil replenished the province’s bank accounts, although the text of the Throne Speech attributed the financial recovery to the government’s work “carefully reducing costs” and “dynamic revenue growth across all sectors of the economy.”

Premier Jason Kenney, speaking to reporters, said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the weaknesses in Canada’s health care system. Alberta, he said, intends to increase intensive care capacity, hire more nurses and accelerate its strategy to shift surgeries to private facilities. The cost of those surgeries will still be paid for by the government.

“We just want to get more procedures done more quickly,” Mr. Kenney said Tuesday.

Mr. Kenney did not detail how the government would speed up its surgery strategy. About 15 per cent of surgeries in Alberta take place in private clinics, with the costs covered by the government. The UCP, in early March, 2020, announced plans to double the amount of surgeries performed in private clinics by 2023. The pandemic thwarted this plan and wait times swelled as Alberta cancelled surgeries to make space for COVID-19 patients in hospital. Mr. Kenney renewed the government’s goal of doubling the amount of outsourced surgeries, but did not provide a timeline.

Rachel Notley, the Leader of the Alberta New Democratic Party, decried the Throne Speech, arguing the UCP is trying to dismantle the public health care system. The Official Opposition said the surgical backlog is a result of staffing shortages, ranging from physicians to x-ray technicians.

“Making surgeries available in a privately delivered, though still publicly funded, setting does not come with a magic wand to create new front-line health care workers who are happy to work for less, which, by the way, is what private delivery of surgery is premised on,” Ms. Notley told reporters. “It is not a solution.”

The UCP government will also focus on adding baseline intensive care capacity, which was crushed as unvaccinated COVID-19 patients flooded hospitals during the Delta wave. Mr. Kenney pledged Alberta will hire more nurses to strengthen the system.

“We need more nurses with experience for things like intensive care,” he said. Alberta’s baseline ICU capacity is 173 beds, although the definition of such a specialized bed is flexible. The province’s baseline ICU capacity per capita is on the low end compared with other provinces.

Some observers predict the government could post a surplus in the new budget, thanks to high oil prices. Mr. Kenney declined to say whether the budget would be balanced, but insisted Alberta’s renewed financial strength would not be possible if not for the UCP’s spending restraints.

The government, according to the Throne Speech, is also planning regulatory changes to create new, and support existing, charter schools. Alberta has 13 charter schools, which are designed to be autonomous non-profit public institutions that follow the provincial curriculum, albeit in their own styles. Charter schools may, for example, have different learning or teaching methods compared with traditional board authorities.

The province also intends to offer specialized services to home-schooled children with special needs, the Throne Speech said.

The UCP is also using the budget to offset higher living expenses. “To protect consumers from higher utility costs, the government will introduce a natural gas consumer protection program similar to rebate programs used in the past,” the text of the Throne Speech said.

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