Budget will hit families hard
The important question is: Beyond all the rhetoric of the government and right-wing pundits about the provincial deficit (a deficit attributable to the flat tax and massive giveaways to the energy industry)—what will this budget mean to you, your family, and your community?
Premier Stelmach’s final budget has been framed in the media as one that does not cut as far as what his main rival in the PC party, Ted Morton, or his main rival outside the PC party, Danielle Smith, would do. While this is certainly true, many parts of the budget do not even keep up with inflation and population growth, let alone deal with the years of underfunding in vital public services. So let’s not fall into the trap of being relieved that we have been cut only a little bit or are happy with the inadequate status quo. If they can afford a $1.66 billion giveaway to the oil and gas industry, in one year through only one subsidy program, then they should not be cutting essential public services that are vital to our economy, well-being and quality of life.
If you are planning to have children or already have young kids and need to find quality, affordable childcare, this will continue to be a challenge because the government has cancelled its childcare space creation program (even though the federal government is still giving Alberta $25 million/year to create more childcare spaces). Despite a welcome but modest increase to childcare spending this year, Alberta’s low spending on childcare will leave many families unable to afford the high cost of childcare, even with subsidies.
The education system will also be under further stress due to this budget. There is an increase in base instructional grant funding, but other grants are being cut that are going to have an impact on the quality of education. Once the school boards are done crunching the numbers, we are going to hear about upwards of 300 teachers and other key staff people in the educational system being laid off and programs being cancelled. The result for you and your kids: larger class sizes, more school fees, and continuing pressure to close down community schools. (Edmonton Journal article, "Budget cuts put Alberta teachers’ jobs on the line," February 27, 2011)
If you, your kids or grandkids have plans for post-secondary education, this provincial budget is also going to make it more difficult to get into these programs because technical institutes, colleges and universities across the province are going to again be dealing with deficit budgets. While there is some additional support ($20 million) for hiring new faculty, this will not even address the cuts that happened last year at the U of A, let alone all of the other institutions across the province. There are no new infrastructure programs planned to help expand post-secondary services, even though Alberta still has the lowest post-secondary education participation rate in the county. Students will also continue to feel the bite. The new student financial aid package will be cutting $33 million by making sure support only goes to those students who complete their degrees. Pressure will certainly be mounting to change the tuition fee policy that limits increases to inflation.
Human Services and Poverty
This budget is not good news for many individuals and families struggling to break out of the poverty cycle. The budget has cut income supports from $499 million to $467 million even though our income support programs are among the lowest in Canada. The on-going commitment to the 10 year plan to eliminate homelessness is commendable, but the rent subsidy program that helps prevent people from becoming homeless in the first place has taken yet another cut this year (down to $75.1 million from $144 million in 2008-09). Without an overall plan to address the poverty issues that lead to homelessness, this plan will not achieve its important goal.
The further cuts to employment and training programs (from $195 million in 2009 to $176.5 million in 2010 to $162 million in 2011) will also mean that many people who are struggling to get a better job will remain in poverty. Immigration programs have also been cut 15% (from $60 to $51 million) and English as a second language programs have been cut a huge 27% this year. This is not only morally wrong—if we do not support new immigrants to Alberta, this will ultimately cost our economy and our communities more over the long run.
(For more details on the budget’s impact on low income groups, please see the Edmonton Social Planning Council’s Fact Sheet on Budget 2011)
Seniors and Community Supports
Seniors and adults with developmental disabilities will also continue to struggle without enough trained professionals as funding for homecare and disability service workers will not address the staffing crisis facing these sectors. While the additional 6% increase to the health care budget is certainly positive, with inflation and population growth this increase will not be able to fully resolve the shortage of acute care beds and the crisis in mental health. Without a commitment to build more long-term care spaces (rather than the lodges and assisted living facilities that are not equipped to support people with high medical needs), we will continue to have far too many seniors in our acute care hospitals and at home desperately waiting to get the medically necessary care and support they need.
Of course we also see that the Ministry of Environment has taken another hit this year as their budget has been reduced from $309.4 million to $290 million. At a time when we need urgent action on climate change, it is frustrating to see that the biggest cut in this department is the climate change and emissions management line item. It is also appalling that despite previous commitments to support public transit in our cities, there are no serious dollars to help build our much needed LRT system in Edmonton. Meanwhile, on the tar sands, despite repeated condemnations of the water monitoring system as grossly inadequate, this budget again reflects a greater commitment to rhetoric rather than action. While funding for monitoring, science and reporting increased, it still stands at only $17 million, pathetic in comparison to communications funding, which, for instance, spent $25 million on a single tar sands PR campaign. (See Greenpeace Blog Entry, "The numbers speak for themselves")
Culture and Community Supports
Finally, the Ministry of Culture and Community Supports was further cut back again this year, in particular with deep cuts to “Community and Voluntary Support Services” (from $142.4 million to $105.4 million). While cultural industries funding has managed to keep pace with inflation, many of Alberta’s artists and arts groups are still struggling after dealing with 16% cuts from last year. Check out the “I love Alberta Art” campaign coordinated by the Professional Arts Coalition of Edmonton and help keep the pressure on to make sure all politicians know that the arts are a vital part of our economy, strong vibrant communities and our quality of life.By Bill Moore-Kilgannon Executive Director, Public Interest Alberta
Co-chair, Join Together Alberta