The 2021-22 Alberta provincial budget announced today has $103.7 million earmarked for capital spending in agriculture and forestry. It includes $30.6 million for irrigation projects and $18.1 million for expansion of Lethbridge Exhibition Park, both announced last year, as well as $12 million for the ongoing irrigation rehabilitation program.
Reflected in the budget is an $800 million increase in the overall borrowing limit through the Agriculture Financial Services Corp. (AFSC). That will bring the total limit to $3.6 billion by 2024.
“It’s a pretty heavy ag budget, I think,” said Dreeshen, adding that the increase in AFSC lending “goes a long ways for direct loans to farmers and ranchers as well as ag businesses.”
The individual lending limit is being doubled to $30 million from $15 million through AFSC, which is designed to support larger agricultural deals in the province. Some of those larger deals are expected to arise through irrigation expansion and related food processing opportunities.
“Our irrigation money that’s going to flow out this year — with new projects there will be hundreds of kilometres of new pipelines for irrigation rehabilitation projects, two new reservoirs are going to have major upgrades as well as two brand new reservoirs in southern Alberta to again expand irrigated acres by more than 200,000 after all these projects are completed.”
Heather Sweet, NDP agriculture critic, said she has concerns about cuts to the agricultural budget. She said $2 billion for investments indicated in the 2020 budget have been reduced to slightly more than $1 billion in the 2021 budget.
“Most of the areas that looks like have been cut are the trade, investment and food management areas, the lending areas, insurance and the agricultural income support,” said Sweet.
“And of course that’s an issue because with the tone of this budget — it was all about job creation, diversification and investment — and yet the very areas that money is targeted for in this budget for agriculture have been actually decreased.
“Why is he continuing to decrease the budget and why is he not actually increasing his investment in the area of trade, investment and food management?” asked Sweet.
She said the investment in irrigation, done in co-operation with the federal government and irrigation districts, is well placed but sees the need for larger investment in areas that increase agricultural trade and value-added projects.
Sweet said the budget indicates another 70 full-time jobs in the agriculture and forestry department are slated for the chopping block. Those are in addition to the more than 200 positions cut last year.
The budget overall has what Finance Minister Travis Toews said was an historic investment in health care, with a $1.25 billion contingency fund to fight COVID-19. Nearly $900 million will be added to the base health budget “to reduce surgical wait times, increase continuing care and home care capacity.”
In a three-year plan, Toews said the government would invest almost $21 billion in construction projects to support approximately 90,000 new jobs.
There is $1.5 billion earmarked to enhance and diversify agriculture, energy, technology and tourism.
However, the $18.2 billion provincial deficit is $3 billion more than the last projection, largely the result of measures in response to COVID-19. The provincial debt is $115.8 billion.
No new taxes were proposed.