Alberta budget deficit almost $2B lower than originally forecast: finance minister

WATCH ABOVE: Alberta's deficit has seen a significant drop from last spring's budget, according to the third quarter fiscal update released by Finance Minister Joe Ceci.

A third-quarter update from the Alberta government forecasts a budget deficit almost $2 billion lower than originally forecast due in part to higher than expected bitumen royalties.

Finance Minister Joe Ceci on Wednesday projected a deficit of $6.9 billion for the 2018-2019 fiscal year — down from the $8.8 billion in his financial blueprint last March.

READ MORE: Alberta slashes deficit projection by $1.4B in fiscal update

He has not confirmed whether a budget for this year will be presented before a spring election call.

“The deficit is down by $1.9 billion, faster than forecast. We’re on track to balance the budget by 2023 and we’ll continue to have the best balance sheet in the country,” Ceci said at the legislature.

The update forecasts total revenue at $49.6 billion and total expenses at $56.6 billion.

Debt is being pegged at $56.8 billion and is projected to rise to $95 billion by 2024.

Watch below: Whenever the spring election is called, Alberta’s economy will be at the heart of the campaign. Fletcher Kent has more on what the latest fiscal updates say.

The update contained long-term projections for deficit reduction, which are normally found in budgets, along with charts detailing what the NDP government has been doing to combat a downturn in oil prices.

The document lauded how “the Alberta government moved quickly and decisively to improve the value of Alberta’s resources.”

It also echoed NDP campaign policies and slogans. It said “the government refused to make a bad situation worse through drastic cuts that would have put thousands more out of work.”

Ceci dismissed suggestions he was putting out a political document under the guise of a publicly funded government report as Albertans prepare to go to the polls.

WATCH: Calgary business community calling for policy change following Q3 update

READ MORE: UCP’s Jason Kenney calls on Alberta premier to call election, stop campaigning on public dime

Premier Rachel Notley can call an election at any time to start a 28-day campaign. Legislation dictates an election must be held before the end of May.

“I asked my officials to prepare the information because there’s good news in this path to (budget) balance,” said Ceci.

“I thought it’s been enough time since we last talked about it (in March 2018) that we should talk about it again.”

The legislature is to reconvene March 18 for a spring sitting.

Opposition parties have been criticizing Notley and her government for what they say is a misuse of government money and resources to push her party’s message before the campaign period.

Last weekend, Notley was criticized for making a campaign speech in the atrium of a hospital in violation of political neutrality rules at Alberta Health Services facilities.

Notley has also been giving campaign-style speeches.

READ MORE: Alberta NDP won’t hold campaign events inside public hospitals again: health minister

Jason Nixon, house leader for the Opposition United Conservatives, said Ceci’s update contained similar political messaging.

“They’re trying to operate as a government while still campaigning across the province,” said Nixon.

“It’s time for an election. It’s time for Albertans to decide who is best to run this province.”

The UCP also said Ceci’s update affirms the province is racking up crushing debtloads by a party that has promised — and failed — to meet self-imposed deadlines to balance the books.

“Albertans are pleased to see a lower deficit but, really, the government is only focusing on the revenue side,” said Franco Terrazzano, the Alberta director for the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.

“We’ve seen years of runaway spending and that has led to higher taxes, the debt and the deterioration of government finances.

“Rather than focusing on fiscal restraint, we’re seeing politicians announce big-ticket spending items,” Terrazzano said. “These announcements don’t show a government that is prioritizing getting its fiscal house in order; these announcements show a government that is unwilling to address its spending problem.”

READ MORE: Deficit revised to $7.5 billion but Alberta grapples with oil price differential

Alberta Party finance critic Greg Clark said the path to balancing the budget by 2023-2024 is unrealistic because non-renewable resource revenues would need to more than double to $12.3 billion by 2024.

“The entirety of their plan consists of holding expenses flat, an unlikely move for this government, and having resource revenue increase until the deficit is gone,” Clark said in a news release.

“They’re using the uncertainty of the energy market to cover for a number they pulled out of thin air, a number that just happened to balance their budget for them.”

— With files from Global News’ Emily Mertz

© 2019 The Canadian Press

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