Road, bridge grants also cut | Provincial budget slashes spending but still amasses $1.97 billion deficit
EDMONTON — Agriculture took its share of lumps in Alberta’s March 7 budget.
The agriculture budget is estimated to decrease $44.6 million to $583 million from $628 million.
Most of the cuts — $32.5 million — will come from eliminating the six cent per litre Farm Fuel Distribution Allowance.
The nine cent per litre Farm Fuel Benefit Program, valued at $70 million, will stay.
“I want to stress, even after the change we have the best regime in the country in fuel support,” said Alberta agriculture minister Verlyn Olson.
As well, 30 full-time equivalent positions will be eliminated in agriculture between the department, AFSC and the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.
Ten of the positions are vacant, while 17 employees from the department and three from AFSC received letters on budget day telling them their positions have been eliminated.
Olson said agriculture fared as well as other departments in the tough budget, which saw the province running a $1.97 billion deficit and borrowing another $4.3 billion for infrastructure projects.
“We were all challenged to see where we could find some savings that could help us contribute to the cause,” said Olson.
“I think we’ve done a good job of that. It’s never easy. When you make changes, someone will be affected. I think the changes we made are very consistent with our overall direction as a government.”
The government anticipates $38.6 billion in revenue, of which about $7.3 billion comes from resource revenue, and plans to spend $40. 5 billion.
“Budget 2013 is changing the way we invest in agriculture,” finance minister Doug Horner said in introducing the budget in the legislature.
“We are focusing dollars on programs and initiatives that will grow our industry, and ensure it’s sustainable and internationally competitive.”
No specific programs were announced promoting food safety, innovation and markets, but the budget emphasized existing programs.
“The ability to do more with less is essential,” said Horner.
Olson said money allocated for research and innovation will help agriculture contribute to Alberta’s diversification away from oil and gas.
“This is not the kind of thing that you snap your fingers and create a diverse economy,” Olson said.
“It’s always a work in progress. The kinds of things we have to support are innovation and research and development because that allows us to develop new products, improve the products we already have.”
Greg Bowie with Alberta Beef Producers said cuts to the agriculture budget will hurt.
“The fact it is down overall is disappointing,” he said.
The association also opposed eliminating the Farm Fuel Distribution Allowance.
Humphrey Banack with Wild Rose Agricultural Producers said eliminating the farm fuel allowance will hit farmers hard, especially grain farmers whose big equipment can easily use 500 litres of fuel a day. Banack estimates the cuts will cost $30 a day for each piece of equipment.
He said WRAP has made suggestions over the years on how government could fine tune the fuel distribution allowance, but was ignored. Instead, the program was ended without consultation.
Bob Barss, president of the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties, said the budget hit rural municipalities hard, including the elimination of several transportation grants: $26 million local municipal initiative grant, $31 million resource road grant, $2 million community airport grant and $26 million local bridge grant.
The Water for Life program, which funded regional water lines, has dropped to $74 million from $145 million, and the municipal water and waste water grant was cut in half to $25 million.
“It’s a huge hit on municipalities across the province,” Barss said.
“The rural areas took the lion share of that hit. How do you keep bridges and roads in shape with zero funding?”
He said the combination of eliminating the fuel allowance and ending infrastructure grants to municipalities will be a big blow to rural Albertans.
While all departments took substantial cuts, Barss said he believes rural municipalities were hit particularly hard with the elimination of important funding.
The only positive sign for Barss was that the government didn’t eliminate the grants from the budget, just the funding, which he hopes will make it easier for the province to reinstate later.