In 25 years of polling and tracking public opinion in Alberta, Bruce Cameron hasn't seen anything like it. Health and education spending are usually top priorities for most people when it comes to the provincial budget, but not this year.

"I have never seen health care drop as low as it is right now," said Cameron, with Return On Insight. "So many people are concerned about the economy, more so than any department or ministry."

The Alberta government has begun gathering public input about the upcoming spring budget. The provincial government expects to table a budget in April with a $10.4-billion deficit, said Finance Minister Joe Ceci on Wednesday. 

'I expect to at least see the line held on health and education spending' - Melanee Thomas, U of C political science professor

Experts say the economy, jobs, diversification and infrastructure spending are of most importance in the province right now.

"Everyone is focused on the economy, even people who wouldn't normally talk about economic concerns because they have a good paying job and may be fine," said Cameron. "They realize throughout the rest of the economy, people are feeling the effects of this economic downturn." 

Economic preoccupation

Tens of thousands of Albertans have lost their jobs in the last year because of the severe plunge in oil prices. The layoffs keep coming in the oilpatch with several companies, including Encana, announcing further staff reductions.

"I expect to at least see the line held on health and education spending," said Melanee Thomas, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, adding she doesn't think there will be cuts. "We're already in crisis, why would we deal with the crisis by putting more people out of work?"

Thomas expects some relatively smaller health care and education announcements, such as reducing school fees. As for the economy, she expects the government to do just about anything to spark or diversify the economy through infrastructure spending, economic incentives and so on.

"This clearly is the issue preoccupying Albertans at this point and time," said Thomas.

Health and education will likely return in prominence in a few years, as the next provincial election draws near.

As the economic downturn persists in the province, issues that normally would cause controversy are not causing as much debate, such as the provincial government's recent decision to reject two new charter schools in Calgary.

"If that would have happened three years ago, it would have been a very significant public conversation," said Donna Kennedy-Glans, a former Calgary MLA. "It wasn't. I was shocked by that."

Kennedy-Glans heads a citizens group called Viewpoints Alberta, which collects feedback on energy development in Alberta. 

Uncertain future

"When was the last time you heard somebody talk about the Tom Baker Cancer Centre in Calgary? I get it, no one wants to talk about infrastructure costs or costs of health care during a time when we've got such urgent economic issues," she said.

Part of the reason why people are so absorbed by the economic woes of the province is because of all the changes happening with the energy sector. Not only are oil and gas prices low, but new climate change policies are in the works, and the transition away from coal power plants is being accelerated, among other changes.

The future is uncertain, says Kennedy-Glans, and that "causes a great deal of frustration, confusion and often anger, frankly."

She also expects the budget will mainly focus on the economy and job creation. She's already noticed how much the Alberta government talks about these issues, and specifically about diversification of the economy.

"It used to be something we talked about as politicians once and a while. [Now] it comes up in just about every single press release," said Kennedy-Glans. "Those games where you take a shot of liquor every time you hear an expression, people would be drunk watching the news. It comes up a lot." 

She suggests diversification can't be quickly changed, but takes a long time to occur.