ALBERTA

Alberta's Finance Minister Moves Budget Balance Date Back One Year

10/21/2015 04:10 EDT | Updated 10/21/2015 07:59 EDT
Amber Bracken/The Canadian Press

EDMONTON — Alberta's finance minister is rolling back by one year the date for balancing the province's books.

The government will not balance the budget until the 2019-2020 fiscal year, Finance Minister Joe Ceci said Wednesday.

"It's going to take a little longer to reach balance than outlined earlier,'' he said.

If the government did not move the deadline, it would have to delay critical infrastructure projects or make deep service cuts that would result in even more overcrowding in classrooms and care centres, Ceci said.

"Our economy cannot withstand any of these actions now.''

Ceci blamed the budget delay on a slump in oil prices that has siphoned billions of dollars out of the province's petro-heavy economy.

"It (the shortfall) is also due to the failure of previous governments to save, to diversify our economy, and to diversify government revenue streams.''

Other promises made in the campaign will be honoured and not delayed, Ceci said.

The budget is to be delivered on Tuesday, a day after the fall sitting of the legislature gets underway. Ceci said the deficit could be just under $6.5 billion.

The timing of the budget is unusual given that it is for the 2015-16 fiscal year, which is already six months old. The former Progressive Conservative government introduced a budget in the spring, but was defeated by the NDP in the May 5 election before the budget was passed.

That document called for a $5-billion deficit this year with a return to balanced budgets by 2018.

The New Democrats have since been retooling the fiscal plan to conform to their election promises, which included $1.4 billion more for health, education and social spending.

Ceci said the budget will provide an economic blueprint for the future.

"Our commitment to stabilize public services and both grow and diversify the economy is unwavering.''

Ceci was asked if he will look at asking for salary freezes in public-sector wages in the next round of negotiations as a way to balance the books.

"That's really getting into an area that I don't want to get into,'' he replied.

"We have to take a very close look at everything going forward: labour expenses as well as expenses in other programs.

"Those are all things that will be under discussion.''

Ceci has previously said the government will continue to look for efficiencies, but will not engage in large-scale layoffs or deep cuts.

Opposition Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said the budget-balance delay raises questions about whether the NDP will ever erase the red ink.

"This is the NDP breaking their single most important campaign promise of balancing the budget before the end of their mandate,'' Jean said in a news release.

"Thousands of Albertans are taking a hard look at their spending during the economic downturn, and the NDP needs to do the same.''

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