Alberta's legislative session will resume in March with the annual budget expected soon after, the government has announced.
The March 5 return for MLAs is three weeks later than the previously scheduled return date, Feb. 12. The budget will be released on March 7, after being released in February during each of the past three years. The delays come as Premier Alison Redford's government looks for cuts to rein in spending as revenues drop due to a declining price paid for Alberta's oil.
"We're taking time to make thoughtful but tough decisions given rapidly falling oil revenues," Ms. Redford wrote Tuesday on her Twitter account, where her office made the announcement. As recently as Monday, she had declined to reveal when the legislature would resume its daily sittings. The session will "be focused on protecting Alberta's gains and building for the future," House Leader Dave Hancock added in a written statement .
The government has been issuing repeated warnings about the economic trouble – softening the ground for cuts, tax hikes or both. It had once projected a surplus this year, but now warns of a deficit in excess of $3-billion despite a robust economy. The government's latest warning came hours before Ms. Redford's announcement, when her finance minister, Doug Horner, appeared at an Edmonton Economic Development Corporation (EEDC) luncheon. Mr. Horner praised Alberta's low unemployment rate and strong projected GDP growth but warned of rough times ahead.
"While the economy continues to perform, there are other factors affecting our treasury," Mr. Horner told the crowd, pointing to the "significant," and growing, gap between the world oil price and what Alberta's oil fetches. "The road to reaching fiscal balance an sustained economic strength is not always a straight or easy one," he said.
Many observers now say Alberta has a structural deficit, and that this budget crisis isn't a fluke in a province where tax rates remain low but spending has soared in recent years. Several top government officials have raised the notion of tax increases, though Ms. Redford has distanced herself from the idea by publicly saying that wouldn't be her "preference." The official opposition Wildrose Party is pushing for cuts, while the Liberals and New Democrats argue Albertans would welcome certain tax increases, particularly for high-earners and corporations. Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel issued a plea Tuesday that the government not cut services to the needy, saying "people who share in the wealth should share in the downside."
EEDC President and chief executive officer Brad Ferguson – who, in 2011, ran Mr. Horner's unsuccessful bid for the Progressive Conservative party leadership – spoke on the issue at the same luncheon the now-finance-minister attended, saying the government of Ms. Redford and Mr. Horner needs to "get its house in order" then look at raising taxes.
"I think those two things are going to start to come together here in the next while. It's a conversation that has to happen," Mr. Ferguson said. "…It's something that she's not willing to talk about out right now, and I know it's coming, and I look forward to that conversation in the next week or two."