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Can Jason Kenney pass the UCP budget, prorogue the legislature, and get out of town before COVID-19 really hits the fan?

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Image: Government of Alberta

Beware the ides of March!

It'll be interesting to see if Premier Jason Kenney can find a way to pass his budget, prorogue the legislature, and get the heck outta Dodge before the really bad stuff from the COVID-19 pandemic's arrival in Alberta starts to hit the fan.

On Friday, as we know thanks to the Toronto Star, Kenney was begging Opposition leader Rachel Notley to be a good sport and help him fast-track passage of the budget, supposedly so everyone could concentrate on the fight against the novel coronavirus that's wreaking havoc on the world economy and the health of tens of thousands of people on every continent except Antarctica.

Thanks to the double whammy delivered by COVID-19 and the oil price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia that at almost the same moment sent petroleum prices plunging, quite possibly for a very long time, Finance Minister Travis Toews's budget was way past its best-before date almost the instant he read it in the legislature on February 27.

Moreover, recent polling strongly suggests the UCP's honeymoon with Alberta voters is over, and a big fight in the legislature over the idea of health-care budget cuts with the coronavirus bearing down on Alberta like a freight train probably isn't on Kenney's list of fun ways to spend a week. With travel to the United States out, it might even be enough to push the guy into 14 days of self-isolation.

As the Angus Reid Institute put it in a statement on Friday, "Jason Kenney's approval has been deteriorating since the election less than a year ago, down from 61 per cent to 47 per cent, and … his party's lead on vote intention is also softening. The UCP won 55 per cent of the vote at the time but currently holds the vote intention of just 40 per cent of residents." The pollster pegged NDP support at 36 per cent.

Kenney's United Conservative Party has a big majority, of course, so it can pass its budget if he wants it to -- but not without a budget debate in which the NDP Opposition could beat up his government for going after physicians and cutting health-care funding right in the middle of a global pandemic.

Or the UCP could prorogue the house immediately and avoid the fight. And -- who knows? -- maybe they'll do that today.

However, that would mean they'd have to bring down a new budget in the next session -- one that could hardly avoid the harsh new reality that's emerged in the short time since February ended. It would be a budget with a breathtaking deficit, far bigger than any the NDP's finance minister, Joe Ceci, ever tabled.

They could introduce a motion to adjourn on Monday, but they can't make it an emergency motion because the Opposition has already given notice for one of its own, and the rules permit the legislature to deal with only one such motion every day.

This is called finding yourself on the horns of a dilemma.

Well, they could always ask for the unanimous consent to adjourn now, and debate the budget later.

How will this play?

"Premier @jkenney has asked us to pass the budget now and then trust him to do the right thing," Notley tweeted Friday. "Let's be clear that his budget is a direct attack on health care at the time we can least afford it."

"We need more nurses, not fewer. We need more hospital beds, not fewer. We need support for doctors, not fights. We need financial support for folks who are unable to work and families impacted by this pandemic," she continued in another tweet.

"A spending bill is needed to keep government services running," responded Matt Wolf, the premier's director of issues management. "Money runs out in weeks," he continued, perhaps hoping voters would confuse the Alberta legislature for the U.S. Congress. "Vast sums will be spent on emergency pandemic response. Ms. Notley knows all this, but is choosing the play politics." (sic)

Shannon Phillips, the Opposition's finance critic snapped back: "Matt's lying. Cabinet can run the province on special warrants through a crisis. Instead, Premier Kenney and UCP want the Opposition to vote for a budget full of health care cuts. Budgets are about choices. The NDP will not choose a blueprint for chaos in health care."

Stay tuned.

Meantime, yesterday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Deena Hinshaw said there are now 10 new cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, six in Calgary and four in Edmonton, bringing the total to 39. She said two patients, both in their 60s, are in intensive care.

"We can expect cases of COVID-19 to continue in Alberta, and Canada, for months," she warned. If she makes the decision to close schools, she advised a reporter, "we will be looking at school closures until the end of the school year."

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Government of Alberta

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