By: Jacques Marcil, Senior Economist
This is the season of budgets and baseball spring training. While there is no true link between the two, one could not help think of Alberta Finance minister Lloyd Snelgrove as a relief pitcher.
Snelgrove was brought in last month as an emergency caretaker minister of Finance in replacement of Ted Morton, who resigned to join the PC leadership race. (One of the worst-kept secrets in Alberta is that Morton essentially resigned because his views on government cost-cutting were too drastic for outgoing Premier Ed Stelmach’s taste.)
There were no real surprises in the February 24 Alberta budget. Usually, the absence of surprises is considered to be a positive sign. Is this the case here? Yes and no.
On the expense side, the 2010 approach is somewhat repeated: sustained financing for health, education and other “social” ministries, with modest cuts to the other ministries to offset this. This results in program spending increases of 0.5%, 1.3% and 3.1% over this year and the two following years.
On the revenue side, nothing much is done except some service fee increases. However, Snelgrove expects Alberta revenues to grow solidly on their own, reflecting very positive forecasts for economic growth and for natural resource royalties. The latter are expected to jump by 23% and 16% in 2012-13 and 2013-14 respectively. (This is not impossible, but who knows?)
As a result, the province’s deficit gets erased by 2013-14, one year later than originally planned. This delay is not bad in itself given the severity of the recession in Alberta. The problem is that the balancing act is accomplished by drawing down most of the Sustainability Fund—a meager $1.7B is left in it by that date, one-tenth of what was in the Fund in 2009-10.
So the Alberta government has little margin of maneuver and lots of hope hanging on energy price forecasts. Past experience has taught Albertans that those prices are full of surprises, positive and negative. We might have reached the point where Alberta taxpayers have had enough of this uncertainty.
You can’t have your cake and eat it too—Albertans have long enjoyed low taxes, but if they want to enjoy the same level of services as other parts of the country they will have to start considering other sources of revenue for their provincial government.
Energy royalties are nice but they are irregular and unpredictable. The province pays for most of the steadily-growing cost of its services using rollercoaster energy money. If Alberta needs to reform its tax system, it should do so. Taxes are not an ideological issue, they are a practical one. Decisions on tax policy should be fact-based, period.
To return to my baseball analogy (a very agreeable thought when the windchill factor is -36ºC outside), walks are “bad things” but even the best pitcher sometimes has to issue an intentional walk depending on the game situation. No one likes taxes, but sometimes we need them.
Given the unpredictability of Alberta politics (a misnomer until a few years ago), maybe now is not the time to start complex discussions on what size of government Albertans want, or about what taxes are needed for its proper functioning.
Thinking again about it, maybe it is the right time.