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Back in black? Alberta set to table budget reflecting 'improving fiscal situation'

As Alberta prepares for the tabling of its next provincial budget, Finance Minister Travis Toews says there are signs of greater optimism.

The province has seen years of multibillion-dollar deficits, but Toews told CTV News Edmonton that improvement is on the horizon.

"We have an improving fiscal situation here in the province, certainly this year, but we have an improving fiscal trajectory as well," Toews said.

Last February, the finance minister predicted a deficit of $18.2 billion. By November, the projected deficit shrunk to $5.8 billion. Now, one economist believes there could be a chance the budget could move back to the black.

Trevor Tombe, economist at the University of Calgary, believes Alberta could see its first surplus since 2014, to the tune of about $1 billion to $2 billion.

"If we don't have a surplus, it will be because the government chose not to have one through price assumptions or contingencies," Tombe said.

Tombe says that is based on a $14.2-billion revenue increase driven by natural resource revenue growth, especially in non-renewables.

"We shouldn't forget that there will be an inevitable sharp decline in royalty revenues at some unpredictable point in the future," Tombe added.

While the finance minister said resource revenues have surged, Toews insisted they are not the whole story, indicating three key priorities for the province that have helped improve an unfavourable fiscal situation.

"We have been doing all that we can broadly to position this province to have an incredibly competitive and attractive business environment," the minister said. "We've gone out to sell the province to the global investment community and we are seeing investment come into this province in the billions, and it's not just in the energy industry."

That investment will create better conditions for Alberta workers, Toews argues.

"As we position the province for businesses to operate most efficiently and competitively, that has an impact on the cost of services and products that are offered in the province."

In addition, Toews said the province has been working to reduce the per capita cost of delivering ongoing government services closer to what other provinces spend.

"While we funded health care with all the resources they've needed to deal with the pandemic, while we supported Albertans and Alberta businesses during this time, at the same time we worked to deliver ongoing government services more efficiently," Toews said.

"I believe that is essential to get this province on a sustainable fiscal trajectory," he added. "We will maintain a strong balance sheet for the province."

The last piece of the puzzle is projected increases in personal and corporate income tax, as Toews says more Albertans and businesses are recovering from the pandemic.

"That shows the broad strength in the economy, and that's very encouraging and consistent with what we are seeing in terms of investment announcements and the growth in tech and aviation (sectors)," he said.

Toews said Albertans can expect to see a responsible budget that pays down debt, invests in the Heritage Savings Plan, gives consideration to key capital projects, and ensures health care capacity is prioritized.

"We have a health-care system with very little margin in terms of extra capacity," Toews told CTV News. "And so we have a health minister right now that's looking into options for expanded health care capacity in those areas where we have really been pushed over the last number of months."

The budget will be delivered on Feb. 24. 

With files from CTV News Edmonton's Chelan Skulski Top Stories

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