EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the provincial budget will include an unprecedented blitz of health-care spending powered by a roaring, re-energized economy.
Kenney announced $1.8-billion in long-term spending Wednesday to increase beds, operating rooms and labs at the Red Deer Regional Hospital.
He said it's the vanguard of a monumental health-spending package coming Thursday in the 2022-23 budget.
"If there's one thing we've learned through the past two tough years of COVID is that we need greater value for money in our health-care system. We need more beds. We need more capacity," Kenney said in Red Deer.
"In tomorrow’s budget, (Finance Minister Travis Toews) will present a historic investment to increase health-care capacity in Alberta — an increase that is only possible because of a growing and dynamic economy."
Alberta's COVID-19 pandemic left the province scrambling at times to open ad hoc intensive care spaces to accommodate waves of patients as hospitals were pushed to the brink of collapse.
Kenney said the pandemic highlighted the long-standing issue of the province spending comparatively more and getting comparatively less in health care.
"We must have the courage to ask ourselves why we have fewer physicians and nurses, ICU beds and acute-care beds per capita than many countries that spend significantly less relatively on health care," he said.
The financial means to make changes is now available, he said.
The premier said his government's belt-tightening, along with tax reductions and targeted business program incentives, has got the economy humming across the board — from non-renewable resources to high-tech ventures to film and TV productions.
Alberta's mainstay oil and gas economy, moribund or wheezing during the dog days of COVID-19, has taken off. The benchmark North American price, West Texas Intermediate, sits at about US$90 a barrel. There are some forecasts that it could go above $100.
Economist Trevor Tombe said Kenney's financial austerity has indeed boosted the bottom line.
But Tombe added that oil and gas remain the fundamental drivers in a province that traditionally relies on volatile resource prices to fund even day-to-day operations.
"Unlike many other jurisdictions, Alberta's budget fortunes are not really all that tightly connected to economic activity. It's really just tied to a commodity price," said Tombe, who's with the University of Calgary.
"We may very well see higher natural resource revenues this coming year than at any point in Alberta history, and that is just an enormous turnaround from the $18.2-billion deficit that we saw projected in the budget this time last year."
Toews has signalled the government will remain prudent in its budget predictions for oil and gas prices.
"There is an expectation from many that we've hit the jackpot, that we can, once again, spend like there's no tomorrow," Toews wrote this week in a newspaper editorial.
"We know where that gets us. Recurring deficits year after year, higher debt-servicing costs and less money available for health, education and social supports."
The Opposition NDP says while the bottom line is bountiful, ordinary families are not getting a share of the wealth.
In fact, says leader Rachel Notley, families are feeling the pinch even more due to rising inflation, food prices and policy changes by Kenney's government that have led to higher fees across the board — from school costs to tuition to exploding utility bills.
She said Kenney has compounded the misery with inflation de-indexing changes that have effectively increased taxes for families and clawed back money from the most vulnerable.
"Under this premier, families have been hit with too many fee and tax hikes to count," Notley told Kenney during question period Wednesday.
"And with inflation at an all-time high, this premier's sneaky tax grab and his freeze on low-income benefits makes things worse."
Kenney has promised Thursday's budget will include rebates for those facing high natural gas costs.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 23, 2022.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press