Relief for high natural gas bills coming, Alberta government promises in throne speech
Tuesday's address could be the UCP's final throne speech before the 2023 election
Alberta's government will help consumers struggling with rising natural gas bills, Lt.-Gov. Salma Lakhani said in the province's throne speech Tuesday.
"To protect consumers from higher utility costs, the government will introduce a natural gas consumer protection program similar to rebate programs used in the past," Lakhani said in outlining the United Conservative Party government's priorities for the legislative session.
The speech gives Albertans a glimpse at the government's priorities for what could be its last legislative session before the 2023 provincial election.
The government is promising a return to economic prosperity, which Premier Jason Kenney attributes to improved oil fortunes and his government's fiscal restraint.
"There's a lot of speculation that we may be on track for a balanced budget and a surplus this week," Kenney said during a news conference Tuesday ahead of the throne speech.
"If that happens it will be, yes, in part because of significant growth in non-renewable resource revenues, but it still would not be possible without the spending restraint we brought in."
The throne speech promises a raft of new legislation and investments, but details and costs have yet to be revealed. Finance Minister Travis Toews will unveil Alberta's 2022-23 budget on Thursday afternoon.
After the speech, Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley said there were many critical items missing in the roadmap laid out by the government.
"There should have been a specific commitment to creating jobs, instead we got more empty promises, vague continuations of programs and initiatives that have been failing over and over for the last three years," she told reporters.
Expanding health-care capacity
The government plans to accelerate the Alberta Surgical Initiative — "significantly increasing the number of surgeries performed in chartered surgical facilities," Lakhani said in the speech.
Asked about the plan, Kenney said the goal remains doubling the number of surgeries contracted out to private clinics, from 15 per cent to 30 per cent, or around 90,000 a year — the same number announced during the 2020 provincial budget.
"It's the best way we can start to get on top of these ridiculous surgical wait times that we frankly inherited from the last government and that have got worse during COVID," he said.
The government also plans to increase health-care capacity by expanding intensive care and training and recruiting more health-care workers.
Funding will be committed for health facilities in urban centres, including completion of the Calgary Cancer Care Centre and "an historic expansion" of the Red Deer Regional Hospital.
Easing the way for charter schools
The province is planning to bring in a package of regulatory changes to make it easier to create new charter schools in Alberta, and to support existing ones.
It's not the first time the UCP government has sought to ease the way for charter schools. The Choice in Education Act took effect in September 2020, simplifying the process for creating charter schools.
The throne speech also promises a new program to improve access to specialized services for home-schooling children with special needs.
The speech also highlights Education Minister Adriana LaGrange's plans to introduce a bill to claw teacher regulation and discipline away from the Alberta Teachers' Association (ATA).
Although LaGrange has said the move is to improve student safety, the ATA says the move is politically motivated.
Electricity legislation back on the table
The province plans to begin dissolving the Balancing Pool — an agency that helps support and regulate the electricity market — to cut costs.
The throne speech also promises legislation to turn Alberta into a "modern electricity powerhouse" and "a magnet" for investment in data storage and cryptocurrency.
During the last legislative session, the province introduced a bill to change rules around energy storage, supply, and sales but didn't proceed with it.
Other initiatives highlighted in Tuesday's throne speech include:
- Bill 1, the Queen Elizabeth II Platinum Jubilee Recognition Act, will create honours for Albertans who have done "remarkable things caring for their communities."
- New legislation to broaden services and supports for victims of crime.
- A campaign to attract investment and workers to the province, billed as "a renewed effort to tell Alberta's story to the world."
- Implementing recommendations to improve palliative care.
- Launch a review of recent, apparent hate-motivated incidents.
- Support for the Oil Sands Pathways to Net Zero Alliance's of achieving net zero by 2050.
- Creation of a Clean Hydrogen Centre of Excellence.
- An intention to forge ahead with the UCP's 2019 campaign promises to explore a provincial police force, an Alberta pension plan, and to press the federal government to negotiate on equalization.
- Plans to establish a memorial to residential school survivors on the grounds of the legislature.
- An initiative to memorialize Alberta historical figures by naming buildings and infrastructure after them.
In its 2019 election platform, the UCP made 375 platform promises. The government has ticked each off as it has been accomplished.
That year, the UCP campaigned on balancing Alberta's budget by 2022-23. But the COVID-19 pandemic and global economic downturn appeared to thwart that plan.
However, soaring oil prices will send billions more dollars in oil and gas revenues flowing into the province's coffers this year, with economists believing that rebound could translate into a balanced budget.
On Monday, Opposition leader Rachel Notley said privatizing more health services would drive up costs and deteriorate the quality of care.
She said the government has failed to deliver on its promise of making life more affordable for Albertans, and that high oil and gas prices and inflation are driving up consumers' costs.
"There's a whole range of things [the government] can do to stop grabbing money out of the pockets of regular Albertans," she said.
Re-indexing income taxes, income supports and other benefits to rise along with inflation and capping utility rates and insurance hikes would help, she said.
With files from Janet French