Editorial: Alberta’s $5.5 billion surplus needs to be spent on more important issues

There are many things a government can choose to do with a $5.5 billion surplus, but paying off debt should not be one of them.

For a province that keeps cutting funding to so many public programs, you’d expect the budget to be tight.  However, Albertans have been outraged to find out this isn’t the case for our provincial government. With so many services in our province struggling from budget cuts, Albertans are absolutely right to be upset. 

This year, Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) government is projecting a $5.5 billion surplus for 2023-24. This is more than double the original budget projection of $2.4 billion. However, while the UCP is bragging about their frugal spending, Albertans are more than upset, and they have a right to be. Some are even leaving rightfully angry comments on Minister of Infrastructure Peter Guthrie’s X post announcing the surplus. 

The government shouldn’t be bragging when they haven’t properly funded public services this year. Health care and education have taken a hit, and Albertans are struggling with the cost of living. Albertans should be a priority for the UCP, but right now, this doesn’t seem to be the case. 

The UCP is using a large bulk of the surplus to pay down existing debts. Of the surplus, $3.2 billion will go toward reducing our province’s debt, which currently totals $76.1 billion. While there is something to be said for reducing debts, the timing is awful. 

Alberta is in the midst of an erosion of basic public services. Access to timely and adequate health care is becoming scarce, and K-12 class sizes are ballooning to unprecedented levels. Albertans are facing an affordability crisis. Boasting about such a large budget surplus while the government is not meeting our basic needs is out of touch.

Saving lives is much more important than paying off debt, especially when what we ignore now will only hurt our future provincial spending. 

A large issue that has many Albertans talking is health care. With the UCP’s efforts to completely restructure the way health care is delivered in Alberta, some are worried about a severe degradation as a result. As recently as December 12, front-line staff reported that hospitals are delaying children’s chemotherapy treatments due to a lack of space. Alberta Health Services (AHS) is also postponing non-urgent surgeries again. To make matters worse, AHS is planning to cut 500 nursing positions across the province. While this move will purportedly save money, this will only make our current issues worse. 

Health care costs only grow over time with neglect. As a result, small issues today become large issues that require more expensive treatment down the road. By refusing to allocate surplus money to the health care system, we will likely be forced to pay for it later. Saving lives is much more important than paying off debt, especially when what we ignore now will only hurt our future provincial spending. 

Health care isn’t the only public service falling victim to the UCP’s budget cuts. Education is a very contentious issue with broad consequences, and is yet another area that the UCP is neglecting. As enrolment rates explode and funding per student dwindles, school boards are having to increase class sizes. Just this year, the Edmonton Public School Board (EPSB) reported that over one in eight schools are at or over 100 per cent capacity. Schools without adequate learning spaces result in a poor quality of education for all students.

Students should not have to learn in libraries, staff rooms, and gymnasiums, which is becoming an unfortunate norm. While the UCP has provided some funding for school space, they addressed only one of EPSB’s infrastructure priorities. Until the schools have adequate funding, Albertans shouldn’t settle for the misguided use of this surplus.

Not only are students suffering — teachers are too. Many teachers in Alberta are becoming burnt out due to unmanageable class sizes and lack of additional support for students’ complex learning needs. According to a survey by the Alberta Teachers’ Association, 92 per cent of those surveyed indicated feeling fatigued. Additionally, one in three teachers reported that they were unsure if they would return to their teaching role next year. This paints a bleak picture of our current education system, which has historically been one of the best in the world. 

Additional funding for our schools could help relieve pressure on students and teachers. While the UCP has allocated $30 million for school districts, this is not nearly enough. This $30 million represents not even one per cent of the surplus. It is an insulting blow to the burnt out teachers and struggling students in this province. 

It doesn’t end there — more and more Albertans are struggling to make ends meet, and post-secondary students are no exception. The University of Alberta’s Campus Food Bank has seen a doubling of demand in recent years. This isn’t a surprise as grocery prices have increased a ridiculous amount and are still going up.

Recently, Statistics Canada reported that basic necessities cost more in Calgary than in Toronto or Vancouver, with Edmonton close behind. Contributing to this, the cost of energy has skyrocketed, leaving some families with massive electricity and power bills. Coupled with the fact that Alberta also has some of the highest insurance rates in Canada, many are struggling. It is absolutely unfair that the UCP won’t provide relief to struggling Albertans, but still think that a $5.5 billion surplus is a good thing.

More specific to students, tuition rates at institutions across the province have increased since the UCP removed the cap placed by the 2015-19 Alberta New Democratic Party (NDP) government. Post-secondary students are often an overlooked group, but they’re facing the effects of increasing prices just as much as everyone else. It’s very frustrating to see the allocation of the surplus not going toward reducing the financial burden that we face. Some action has been taken, such as a 2 per cent cap on tuition, but it’s not nearly as much help as students need.

With affordability likely to be the issue at the forefront of people’s minds, the UCP needed to take action and use surplus money to address this crisis. It feels very hopeless when families are falling into poverty and our government turns a blind eye with $5.5 billion in their back-pocket. The NDP spoke out against the UCP’s surplus allocation decisions, highlighting many of the same concerns that the public holds.

The government shouldn’t be bragging when they haven’t properly funded public services this year.

The UCP’s allocation of the surplus money is also drawing criticism from members of the public. One user on X criticized the government’s lack of relief for Albertans during the affordability crisis. Another highlighted how the UCP’s fiscal neglect of our health care system amounts to a purely political decision, especially when the resources are there. Between the NDP and the public’s negative reactions to the UCP’s allocation of the surplus, it is clear that this money needs to be spent elsewhere for the benefit of Albertans. 

Evidently, there are many ways the UCP could have chosen to allocate the $5.5 billion surplus. Improving health care access; shrinking class sizes and minimizing teacher burnout; addressing the affordability crisis; or decreasing tuition rates. This government needs to sort out its priorities. 

While paying off provincial debt has a time and a place, the time and place is not now. Especially when children cannot get timely chemotherapy at our hospitals, schools are bursting at the seams, and thousands of Albertans are struggling to afford basic necessities. Our government needs to do better.

Anna Bajwa-Zschocke

Anna is the 2023-24 Opinion Editor and is in media studies. Usually she can be found amongst colour coded sticky notes, nerding out about European history, bad reality TV, or some new book

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