Alberta’s premier is directing her finance minister to keep plugging away at big-ticket projects long touted by the UCP, including creating a provincial pension plan and tax collection agency.
In a mandate letter released Thursday, Premier Danielle Smith reiterated some of the controversial marching orders she gave to former finance minister Travis Toews late last year, including looking at establishing an Alberta Revenue Agency to collect provincial taxes, and making moves to pull Albertans out of the Canada Pension Plan.
Finance Minister Nate Horner told Postmedia his objectives are about keeping a “steady hand on the wheel” and, echoing Toews last year, said he’s expecting to release the pension report with refreshed data soon, although he didn’t offer a specific timeline.
“I’m fairly agnostic to it. Other than that, it’s something that’s been outlined as a potential opportunity and something that we need to really flesh out and get into the numbers and make sure that Albertans understand,” he said, adding that if voters see a benefit, it will go to a referendum.
The proposal doesn’t have strong public support, even among UCP supporters, according to polling numbers released in May.
Smith didn’t put the question on the ballot, but the idea still drew dire warnings from the NDP throughout May’s election. Long-promised reports that began under former premier Jason Kenney analyzing the costs and benefits of a provincial plan have been in the works for years, but have never been publicly released.
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Likewise, Horner said the directive to explore an Alberta Revenue Agency is about completing work already started by the ministry.
“I think some of the cons of the idea have been well articulated, but I think it’s more just an item to check the box, finish the work and report back to premiere Smith and team,” he said.
The Fair Deal Panel recommended against making changes to tax collection in its 2020 report, with Albertans, including business owners, expressing concern to the panel about extra costs, duplicate collection efforts and increased red tape.
Smith has no mandate to pursue ‘bizarre obsession’: NDP
Shannon Phillips, NDP Opposition finance critic on insurance and pensions, said in a Thursday statement Smith hid her agenda during the election and has no mandate to put the pension plan back on the table.
“Albertans should be deeply concerned by the premier’s bizarre obsession with getting her hands on their retirement savings,” said Phillips.
After Smith’s government put a cap on auto insurance, which is scheduled to end Dec. 31, the premier also tasked Horner with finding new ways to make vehicles and property insurance more affordable, although his letter doesn’t offer specifics.
Horner, who was sworn in as finance minister and treasury board president in June, said the pause on increasing rates was meant to be a short-term affordability measure that “can’t go on forever,” but there is urgency in coming up with a new policy to deal with high costs.
Phillips said he has no confidence in Horner to make meaningful changes to insurance premiums without increasing costs or compromising coverage.
During budget estimates in March, Toews said establishing a new tax collection agency with thousands of additional staff would be a “very significant effort” that could cost at least $500 million annually.
Samir Kayande, NDP finance critic on fiscal responsibility, said that would represent “the largest expansion of the provincial bureaucracy in Alberta’s history.”
“This is money that Albertans expect to go towards hiring more nurses and teachers but instead, they get more tax collectors and a whole new additional set of tax forms to fill out every year,” said Kayande.
Smith has promised the UCP’s first major commitment, when the legislature meets again Oct. 30, will be to introduce a law to bind future governments from increasing taxes without public approval in a referendum.
It will also be up to Horner to follow through on election promises to create a new eight per cent tax bracket on income under $60,000, and extend the fuel tax holiday to the end of the year.