Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci speaks during a press conference about Budget 2018 in the Alberta legislature in Edmonton on March 22, 2018.
Ian Kucerak / Postmedia, file
Alberta’s finance minister says the province’s deficit will be $1.9 billion less in 2018-19 than originally expected, despite the volatile oil differential that hounded energy producers last fall.Third-quarter financials released Wednesday, which now predict a $6.9-billion deficit instead of an original $8.8-billion shortfall, also included an update on the province’s “path to balance” for the first time. This hints the NDP won’t bring forward a budget ahead of a spring election.“The government has not wavered in its commitment to return the budget to balance by 2023-24,” said the report.Premier Rachel Notley has promised an election between March 1 and May 31, and politicians are slated to return to the legislature for a throne speech March 18.Finance Minister Joe Ceci’s update is being delivered on the same day as the Conference Board of Canada projected weakening growth in Alberta in 2019. The nationwide provincial scan from the think tank predicts Alberta’s economic growth will slow to 1.3 per cent. That drop comes “as the business climate remains uncertain and mandated oil production cuts shave nearly a full percentage point from growth,” the report said.Alberta has the lowest projected growth rate of any province, just behind New Brunswick. But the report also predicts Alberta employment will increase by 1.1 per cent in 2019, despite energy sector challenges.In November, Ceci warned of a future slump due to the record price discount on Canadian heavy crude compared to the U.S. benchmark. At its worst, the differential reached upwards of US$50 per barrel in October.The latest fiscal update forecasted the differential to average US $23.50 per barrel for 2018-19, way down from the nearly US $30 per barrel projected in the second quarter. In January, the price gap narrowed dramatically after Notley directed an 8.7-per-cent cut in Alberta oil production.Wednesday’s update also pointed to less than four per cent growth in oil production for 2019 as a result of the provincial curtailment policy.Alberta’s real GDP growth forecasts for 2018 and 2019 were initially pegged at 2.7 per cent and 2.5 per cent respectively. Those numbers from Budget 2018 were revised down Wednesday to 2.4 per cent and 1.6 per cent.The $6.9-billion deficit for 2018-19 was mainly attributed to resource revenue brought about by higher than expected oil prices in the first half of the fiscal year, and a low U.S.-Canada exchange rate.The provincial debt load is at $58.6 billion, up from the $52.8-billion projected in the second quarter. That jump is mainly due to the province pre-borrowing $6.3 billion in cash for 2019-20 due to uncertainty around when a budget will be tabled.UCP Leader Jason Kenney said Tuesday that the NDP’s fiscal plan “is in complete shambles.”“Not only has the government shown no interest in getting back to a balanced budget, but there hasn’t even been a tiny hint of spending restraint,” he said. “Albertans can’t afford having their government running around spending literally billions.”Ceci is holding a news conference at 11:30 a.m.The UCP is planning to respond at a 1 p.m. news conference.More to come … firstname.lastname@example.org/clareclancy