Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci warns spending promises in peril

Alberta's finance minister says low oil prices may force him to hit the brakes on millions of dollars in initiatives promised by the NDP government, such as child-care benefits, school fee reductions, student hiring and environmental retrofits.

Low oil prices may force NDP government to delay program funding committed for 2016

Continued low oil prices may force the Alberta government to delay millions of dollars of spending commitments already made, says Finance Minister Joe Ceci. (CBC)

Alberta's finance minister says low oil prices may force him to hit the brakes on millions of dollars in initiatives promised by the NDP government, such as child-care benefits, school fee reductions, student hiring and environmental retrofits.

Joe Ceci said in a year-end interview that some or all of a dozen programs set to begin in the 2016-17 fiscal year may be delayed.

"We've addressed a lot of (our commitments). We've done a lot of them," Ceci told The Canadian Press. "The ones that haven't been started, they could potentially be delayed or reduced."

The specifics haven't been ironed out.

"I can't point you to any one (program) here in terms of commitments, but I can tell you I'm comfortable recommending (to cabinet) slower phase-in and lower phase-in for some of these things," said Ceci.

Ceci and his staff are crunching numbers for the next budget, to be presented in February or March.

The revenue scenario remains daunting because of a continued decline in oil prices, the wellspring of Alberta's economy. The price for a barrel of West Texas Intermediate has dropped to under $40 US a barrel from a high 18 months ago of more than $100 US.

The last budget, presented in October, had forecast a $6.1-billion deficit.

In that budget, the NDP promised funding to begin in 2016-17 in 12 areas. The big-ticket item was $147 million for a child-care benefit to go to low-income families on a per child basis, up to a total of $2,750 a year.

The government also promised $75 million for more child-care spaces and to increase affordability.

Ceci might also defer $30 million earmarked to improve home care for seniors, $40 million for long-term care and $20 million for a program to provide school lunches for children in need.

Education promises in the budget included $45 million to reduce the cost of school fees and $44 million to provide additional classroom supports.

Premier Rachel Notley's personal pledge to restore a summer student hiring program could also be affected. The province was set to put up $10 million a year to help businesses, municipalities and community organizations hire students to give them work experience.

On the environment side, the province budgeted $5 million to work with banks to provide interest-free loans to help families and small businesses make energy-efficient retrofits. Another $5 million was to beef up environmental monitoring and environment.

The Foundation for the Arts was promised $5 million, and $8 million was pledged to enhance bus service to rural communities.

Ceci said no reductions are planned in the capital budget. New infrastructure is necessary, he said, and construction has the added benefit of creating jobs in difficult times.

The borrowing plan took a hit last week when credit-rating giant Standard and Poor's knocked Alberta's rating down a notch to AA-plus from AAA.

The current capital plan supports $34 billion in spending over five years on roads, schools, hospitals, community centres and other projects.

Debt for infrastructure is expected to surpass $47 billion by 2020.