The United Conservative Party of Alberta is taking getting the provincial government’s fiscal house in order seriously.
Leading the way in fiscal restraint in Alberta is 31-year-old Agriculture and Forestry Minister Devin Dreeshen.
“At agriculture and forestry we’re cutting 38 percent over four years, over half a billion dollars, which again, is just trying to get us to spend within our means and to find efficiencies…” said Dreeshen in a phone interview with The Post Millennial. “[We’re looking] at how the bureaucracy actually functions and how we can streamline processes so those who do have to interact with government are getting it done in a timely manner. So ultimately running government like a business.”
This fiscal year Dreeshen’s ministry is spending $967 million, but by next year the ministry’s operating budget will be down to $879 million.
The former Alberta NDP government under Premier Rachel Notley greatly expanded government spending.
“There was over $30 million–there was a liquor manufacturing program that the previous government brought in, which again, had no real government goals. It wasn’t increasing economic activity, it wasn’t creating more jobs, and so that was a program that we just eliminated right off the bat,” said Dreeshen.
“Overall with this budget, we inherited a mess from the previous NDP government, and they had us on a trajectory for $100 billion in debt. But on top of that, we currently spend $2 billion a year on interest payments,” Dreeshen explained.
Unlike Ontario Premier Doug Ford’s government, which faced severe backlash for initial cuts, including skyrocket disapproval ratings, Premier Jason Kenney’s government is staying steadfast in reducing overall government spending and getting its books in order
“…To me, [the NDP] saddling Alberta’s next generation with debt is something that is irresponsible. And that’s why, I think this is the first provincial government in a couple decades that’s actually cut overall spending totally.”
Even with major cuts in the agriculture and forestry ministry and a few other ministries, the UCP government won’t fully balance the books until 2022-23 with a modest surplus of $600 million. The latest budget will still run a projected $8.7 billion deficit.
Despite the UCP cutting overall spending, both the health ministry and community and social services ministry are increasing their budgets. Education spending is staying at a similar level. In the past, cutting back on these ministries have lead to severe backlash from the general public, unions and press.
“When I went to estimates, and they’re saying ‘look at these cuts you’re making to these programs.’ And so I just countered with, ‘No, that’s a tax cut because Albertans aren’t getting taxed in the first place to have the carbon tax in order to sprinkle out these programs.’ So I think we had four within the department that were completely, specifically tied to the carbon tax, which we eliminated on May 30.”
“We’re looking at how we can reform how the province does ag. research. And so we’re going to be partnering, we’re looking at ways to partner with private sector research, also discussing and consulting with academia to see how the universities can be more involved in ag. research. But at the end of the day we campaigned on farmer-led research, not government-led research. So we want to make sure that farmers are the decision makers on the type of research that the province does fund.”
Consultation with agriculture industry stakeholders will happen in December and Dreesen hopes to have a plan in place by early in the new year.
“It’s big because we have regional research groups, we have commodity organizations that help fund research, we have the life science private companies that are in the space doing a lot of research, we have universities, some of them are doing the research. So we’re trying to piece together the whole research spectrum, to make sure we come up with a new way of doing research that ultimately gets better results for farmers.”
NDP agriculture critic Lorne Dach was no fan of the reduced spending.
“We don’t want to lose these scientists; we need them more than ever,” he said. “We are facing crop pests and clubroot, and we need these scientists to help solve these challenges.”
Dreeshen says part of the problem now with the province’s research grants is there are some projects that are duplicates or redundant to other research projects within Alberta or other parts of the country.
Cuts weren’t across the board, however. The ministry under Dreeshen increased spending by $5 million in combatting the mountain pine beetle, which has devastated some of Alberta’s forests.
“We’re still spending a lot of money in very important, strategic areas.”