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Kenney’s call to cut corporate income taxes is not surprising, as his party sees significant cuts to both taxes and government spending as a solution to the Alberta government’s fiscal woes.
Kenney’s ideological aversion to taxes and public spending in general is well known going back to his time as a spokesperson for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation more than 20 years ago.
“Next to the criminal law power that we wield in Parliament, the power to collect taxes is the most significant and potentially destructive power. Some have said that the power to tax is the power to destroy,” Kenney said as a Reform Party MP in Ottawa in December 1998.
Lowering the corporate income tax this low is not an original idea, but it is unclear what advantage cutting corporate income taxes this low would really give Albertans.
The Alberta Corporate Tax Amendment Act introduced by Revenue Minister Greg Melchin in 2002 set a target of 8 per cent for the corporate income tax rate, but the Progressive Conservative government never let the rate dip below 10 per cent.
Notley’s promise to increase corporate income taxes in 2015 to fill the gap left by plummeting oil and gas royalties led to the most notable exchange in that election’s leaders’ debate, when PC Party leader Jim Prentice got in trouble for sharply responding to Notley’s that “I know math is difficult.” The “math” comment was received poorly, to say the least, and the reaction from Alberta’s corporate leaders helped the NDP soar in the polls until election day.
“Albertans gave this government a strong mandate to act on its promises: That was to ask top-income earners to pay a little bit more for the betterment of all and to ask corporations who benefited the most during stronger economic times to contribute fairly to rebuilding our province,” Finance Minister Joe Ceci told the Globe & Mail shortly before the corporate income taxes were increased in 2015.
It is notable that even under Notley’s NDP government, Alberta’s corporate income taxes today are still lower than the 15.5 per cent they were when Ralph Klein became Premier in 1992 (which was then the third-lowest corporate income tax rate in Canada). Notley’s NDP also lowered the small business tax rate from 3 per cent to 2 per cent, which is also significantly lower than the 6 per cent rate when Klein became premier. But this is not necessarily something to brag about in a province that continues to struggle with its chronic over-reliance on royalty revenues.
As noted by Public Interest Alberta executive director Joel French in a May 2018 opinion-editorial in the Edmonton Journal, “Applying the tax system of any other province to Alberta would raise us a minimum of $11.2 billion in additional annual revenue, more than covering the projected $8.8-billion deficit in this year’s budget.”
With a young and growing population, slashing the corporate income taxes that help fund the day to day operations of government, like the public education and public health care that Albertans depend on to preserve our high quality of life, sounds short-sighted.
With a lack of policy proposals and campaign promises coming from the NDP during this pre-election period, this is another example of Kenney and the UCP dominating the media coverage going into the provincial election.
Meanwhile, the Green Party of Alberta has strapped itself to one of the third rails of Alberta politics by calling for the creation of a Provincial Sales Tax. Many political watchers and economists have called for the creation of a sales tax to help diversify the government’s revenue sources, but politicians of all stripes have been extremely reluctant to take a position in favour of a PST in Alberta.
“The other parties are terrified to mention a sales tax other than to denounce it, but the Green Party is not. It is time for Alberta to start acting like a normal province and bring in a sales tax,” said Green Party public finance shadow critic Carl Svoboda, who is running in Calgary-Edgemont.
In another political universe, this might have been something championed by the NDP, but not in Alberta in 2019.
With no MLAs in the Legislature, the Alberta Greens may have little to lose by calling for the creation of a PST, but by taking this position they do open the door to a much-needed PST debate a little bit wider.
Child poverty in Alberta drops by half in two years
Alberta has the lowest child poverty rate in the country at 5 per cent, having managed to cut its rate in half in just two years, between 2015 and 2017. University of Calgary economist Ron Kneebone told The Star Calgary that the the national Canada Child Benefit and the Alberta Child Benefit were the biggest reasons for this improvement.
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As the Alberta New Democratic Party passes the half way mark of their first four-year term in office and the United Conservative Party chooses its next leader, a big question that remains unanswered in Alberta politics today is how, in the long-term, the Alberta government plans to deal with the revenue shortfall created by the drop in the international price of oil.
After decades of rich oil and gas royalties pouring into public coffers, the Alberta government became over-dependent on oil and natural gas royalties to pay for a large portion of the daily operations of government.
The old Progressive Conservative government led by Ralph Klein used those high royalty revenues to subsidize corporate and personal tax cuts, which proved politically popular in the short-term but fiscally irresponsible in the long-term. When the international price of oil dropped in 2014, so did about $10 billion worth of expected government revenue that the PCs were depending on.
After their election in 2015, Rachel Notley‘s NDP took steps to diversify government revenue with moderate increases to corporate and personal taxes. Even after those increases, Albertans still pay some of the lowest taxes in Canada and those increases were nowhere enough to fill the revenue shortfall.
The positive news is that Alberta’s economy is recovering, but unless the international price of oil recovers, the government will remain in a deficit situation for the foreseeable future.
While I support Notley’s smart choice to continue investing in public services and capital infrastructure projects during the course of the economic recession, it is not clear that the NDP have a real plan to deal with Alberta’s revenue challenges in the long-term.
It is an odd sight to read Finance Department documents that both lament a large budget deficit and boast about low taxes. The NDP inherited one big bad habit from the old PC government and have been unable to break from it.
But if you think the candidates for the leadership of the new United Conservative Party are coming up with new, bright ideas for Alberta’s long-term future, think again. Political rhetoric about returning to the mythical “Alberta Advantage” and calls for drastic cuts to both government spending and revenue are mostly what Jason Kenney, Brian Jean and Doug Schweitzer have proposed.
It is meat for the party base, but not exactly inspiring plans for Alberta’s future.
I get the impression that while they are playing from different sides of the political spectrum, both the NDP and the UCP’s prospective leaders are praying that oil prices recover enough to avoid having to raise taxes or slash the budget to shreds.
Alberta has a revenue problem. And the sooner someone is willing to “take the tax bull by the horns,” as my colleague David Climenhaga wrote, and begin planning for a more sustainable government revenue stream, the better off future generations of Albertans will be.
Schweitzer wants to lower the minimum wage
Doug Schweitzer says he would cut Alberta’s minimum wage from $15 per hour to $12.20 per hour, because it is “right choice for Albertans whose livelihoods count on it the most.”
While he is likely referring to the livelihoods of business owners, it would be the wrong choice for the people impacted the most – the lowest wage working Albertans who would have their wages cut from $15 per hour to $12.20 per hour.
It is safe to say that Schweitzer has earned much, much more than $12.20 per hour at his downtown Calgary job as a partner at Dentons, the world’s largest law firm.
When Finance Minister Joe Ceci stood in the Legislature on Oct. 27 to deliver the Alberta NDP’s first budget, it marked the first time since 1972 that the budget was not tabled by a Progressive Conservative finance minister.
The first budget of Premier Rachel Notley‘s NDP government includes a 15 percent increase in capital spending over the next five years, with a goal to create jobs and tackle the province’s aging and neglected hospitals, schools, roads and other public infrastructure.
The NDP budget includes modest increases and projected stable funding for health care, education, advanced education and human services – core services that Albertans depend on. This was a key component of the election platform that helped propel the NDP into government on May 5. The job creation and economic stimulus elements of the budget followed last week’s creation of an Economic Development and Trade portfolio, led by Edmonton MLA Deron Bilous.
A projected $6.1 billion deficit in the NDP budget is larger than the $5 billion deficit presented in the Tory spring budget, which was tabled but never passed. But the Alberta government’s eighth consecutive deficit budget is “…hardly sky is falling territory,” wrote University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe in Maclean’s Magazine this week.
“While not trivial, obviously, it is completely manageable. Alberta is fully able to handle it and no one need panic. It represents 1.8 per cent of the province’s GDP, which is fairly small, as far as some deficits go,” Dr. Tombe wrote.
The NDP government will borrow to pay for parts of its operations budget starting next year, which will hopefully be a short-term move. Decades of bad financial management and poor long-term planning by the previous conservative government has exacerbated the provincial government’s current fiscal situation. The PCs simply became too comfortable and dependent on unreliable revenue from natural resource royalties to fund the province’s operations budget.
Mr. Ceci also announced that the government would legislate a debt ceiling of 15 percent debt-to-GDP in order to hold off a risk of credit downgrades and higher debt service costs.
Former premier Jim Prentice was correct last year when he warned about getting “off the royalty roller coaster.” The Alberta government faces serious revenue problems and moving Alberta away from its over dependence on resource revenue will be a significant test of Ms. Notley’s first term in government.
Any plan to deal with the revenue problem will likely come after the government receives a much anticipated report from the royalty review panel chaired by ATB President and CEO Dave Mowat. The panel is expected to finalize its recommendations by the end of the year. But it will not be enough to simply wait for the international price of oil to rise again. Albertans need to have a serious conversation about revenue and taxation, including the potential introduction of a provincial sales tax.
Mr. Jean’s post-budget press conference was somewhat overshadowed by Mr. Fildebrandt’s bizarre decision to refuse to answer a question from Globe & Mail reporter Carrie Tait (see the ~8:50 mark in this video). Mr. Fildebrandt is sour from a recent interview Ms. Tait published in which she quotes him as claiming the NDP duped Alberta voters by actually implementing promises made during the election (and he later referred to Ms. Tait as a b-list reporter and accused her of auditioning for a job in the Premier’s Office – a comment he later retracted).
“When governments borrow and spend, there’s no marketable asset. There’s only debt. It’s like using a credit card to buy pizza. Even when governments borrow to spend on bridges and highways rather than programs, the debt is still not connected to a marketable asset. It’s a liability. Mortgages can be liquidated. Houses can be sold. Who buys used government bridges and worn-out highways?”
This is a crude ideological approach to public governance. Using capital financing to pay for the construction and maintenance of public infrastructure like hospitals, schools, bridges and roads is nothing like using a credit card to buy a pizza.
The Alberta NDP’s first provincial budget is sensible and reflects the thoughtful approach that has defined the first six months of Ms. Notley’s tenure as Alberta’s Premier. Rather than follow a disastrous road taken by some of her predecessors, and slash funding to government services while the price of oil is low, the NDP government is taking an opportunity to invest in much needed public infrastructure when the economy is slow and the price is right. It’s not a brand new approach in Alberta politics, but it is refreshing to see a government focus on building rather than tearing down.
“Rat-free, PST-free and Liberal-free” has been a Conservative mantra in Alberta since the reign of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. But is this trifecta now in jeopardy?
The decline of government revenues caused by the drop in the price of oil has once again sparked the discussion around resource diversification and tax increases in Alberta. And with talk of economic doom and gloom, Premier Jim Prentice is managing expectations and preparing Albertans for the upcoming provincial budget and likely a Spring provincial election.
Will the budget include deep funding cuts or tax increases? Under most circumstances, deep budget cuts would be the natural choice for the long-governing Progressive Conservatives, but there is growing speculation that Mr. Prentice could be softening the ground for the introduction of a Provincial Sales Tax (PST) in Alberta.
At a 2013 provincial fiscal summit, economist Bob Ascah suggested that a 1 per cent sales tax could raise $750 million in annual revenue for the provincial government. Diversifying income sources with a five or six per cent sales tax could help soften the blow of the dreaded $7 billion gap that Mr. Prentice has warned will face the provincial budget if oil prices do not increase by next year.
Late last year, Mr. Prentice declared in a speech to the Calgary Chamber of Commerce that he would not consider introducing a PST, but the Premier has changed his tune in 2015, saying that everything is on the table.
In the aftermath of the last major economic downturn in June 2008, when the price of oil dropped from a high of $145 per barrel in July to a low of $30 per barrel in December 2008, PC cabinet ministers like Doug Griffithsopenly mused about PST. When prices increased, resource royalties once again poured in provincial coffers and Alberta’s political class moved away from the PST discussion.
Facing a decline in the price of oil in 1984, Premier Peter Lougheed publicly mused about introducing a sales tax, but did not act on it.
The Alberta Taxpayer Protection Act, introduced by Premier Ralph Klein in 1995, states that a referendum must be held before a Provincial Sales Tax can be introduced. The PCs have shown in the past that they have no problem sweeping away old laws like this one. In 2009, the PC government amended their much touted Fiscal Responsibility Act which prohibited deficit budgets in order to pass a deficit budget.
Relying on a boom-bust economy, a real lack of long-term financial planning has been the biggest weakness of the 43-year governing PC Party.
The introduction of a PST would be a bold and courageous move – one that could land Mr. Prentice in Alberta’s history books beside statesmen like Mr. Lougheed and Ernest Manning. And while under normal circumstances this would be a kiss of death to a Premier’s political career, we may now be witnessing a once in a lifetime opportunity to introduce a sales tax.
The Wildrose Opposition is both leaderless and in complete disarray, and the opposition New Democrats and Liberals could have a difficult time protesting a move that could majorly diversify the government’s revenue stream. And with the departure of Derek Fildebrandt late last year, the local Tax Outrage Industry is lacking a major spokesperson.
As reported on David Climenhaga‘s blog, Conference Board of Canada chief economist Glen Hodgson also weighed in on Alberta’s tax dilemma: “Not having a provincial consumption or sales tax is highly popular and has been great politics, but it denies the provincial government a steady and stable source of revenue through the business cycle.”
To get a grasp of how embarrassingly low our tax rates current are in Alberta, Kevin Taft in his 2012 book, Follow the Money, says that Alberta could increase its tax rates by $11 billion and would still have the lowest tax rate in Canada.
Critics will argue that a sales tax would unfairly penalize low income Albertans, and they are right. The government should also scrap the short-sighted flat tax and return to a real progressive income tax system. Alberta is currently the only province with a Flat Tax, the odd-ball brain child of former Treasurer Stockwell Day.
While Albertans look with envy at Norway’s $900 billion petroleum fund, it could be decades before our government imposes meaningful increases in natural resource royalties. The PCs bowed to political pressure from the oil and gas industry and paid a significant political price when trying to implement meaningful increases to resource revenues in the late 2000s.
The strongest opposition to the introduction of a PST may come from inside the PC caucus. Many PC MLAs are said to be unconvinced that Albertans would support a PST, and the presence of 11 anti-tax former Wildrose MLAs in the government caucus could stiffen the opposition from within. Skeptical MLAs would probably be correct that they will receive a blowback from Albertans in the short-term, but the right decisions are not necessarily the most popular when they are initially implemented. And without a credible government-in-waiting, now could be the the only time the PCs could implement a PST.
Alberta should strive to remain rat-free forever, but on the revenue front, we need to break our dependency on resource revenues that cripple our provincial government each time there is a hiccup in the market.
Alberta’s PST existed for two years until September 1, 1937, when the Social Credit government revoked the sales tax as part of a controversial Great Depression-era Banking bill. The bill would allow the Social Credit Board to revoke the license of any banker, who, for instance foreclosed a mortgage or otherwise disturbed the “property or civil rights” of any citizen of Alberta.
The sales tax, which had a fairly wide range of exemptions such as food, laundry and toilet soap, lumber, bricks and cement, was implemented shortly after William Aberhart‘s Social Credit Party won the 1935 election. The sales tax netted the government an average of $80,000 monthly.
Alberta treasurer Solon Low declared the tax would be cancelled in 1937 as part of the government’s bankers bill. With illusions to the strange Social Credit era economic theory, here were Mr. Low’s comments to the media in response to the end of the sales tax and economic literacy in Alberta in 1937:
“The remission of the sales tax only removed something which, under pressure from finance, this government itself imposed. Nevertheless those instructed in the technique of Douglas social dynamics will immediately recognize signs of its inauguration. In its simpler aspect, of course, tax remission represents the first step necessary to the issue of a dividend – is, in fact the issue of a dividend: for a tax is a dividend in reverse. That is why it would be foolish to begin issuing money as dividends only to pull it in by a graduated an universally applied tax such as a sales tax.”
“As Premier Aberhart has truly said Albertans are the best instructed community in the whole world with regard to economics and if any one desires more detailed explanation of these remarks there are plenty of Albertans everywhere fully qualified to give it and to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that whether the banks furnish the money willingly or otherwise, it will cost them nothing.”