Sometimes living in Alberta is like living in the classic film Groundhog Day, in which actor Bill Murray finds himself in a time loop, repeating the same day again and again.
In Alberta, relying on the cyclical nature of oil prices while not planning for the future, we appear doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again. Despite our enormous natural wealth, the declining price of oil and a lack of long-term planning has left our government with a significant short-term gap in revenue.
While other oil-rich jurisdictions, like Norway, set aside large financial reserves in order to weather this sort of slowdown, Alberta’s Progressive Conservative leaders have historically not shared that vision.
Looking for other sources of revenue, Finance Minister Robin Campbell floated the idea this week of reintroducing Health Care Premiums. Albertans paid monthly health care premiums until the PC Government cancelled them in 2009, forfeiting an estimated $1 billion in annual revenue at the time.
Despite the name, the previous version of the health care premiums were not dedicated health care funding but were instead funnelled into the provincial government’s general revenue.
The health care premiums trial balloon is another distraction from the real revenue problems that Alberta’s politicians are reluctant to address, such as the reintroduction of a progressive taxation system, like the one Alberta had before the short-sighted flat tax was introduced in 2000.
While Mr. Campbell has travelled the province to meet with business groups and rooms filled with friendly supporters, there has been no real attempt by the government to start a meaningful conversation or consultation with Albertans about how their public services are funded. And while the PCs have signalled an intent to increase revenue by some manner, which is a positive step, Premier Jim Prentice has already ruled out some sensible changes.
Mr. Prentice has nixed any plans to make increases to corporate taxes and natural resource royalties, and likely the introduction of a provincial sales tax. The decision to avoid more corporate taxes and royalty increases is not surprising, as it serves to protect the large corporations and wealthy individuals who continue to make large donations to the PC Party.
According to comments made my Mr. Prentice, it would seem that the Alberta Government’s projected $7 billion in royalties from the oil sands have completely evaporated. Documents from Alberta’s Department of Energy show that when the price of oil was sitting at $120.00 a barrel, Albertans were only collecting $10.80 per barrel in royalties (9%) on gross revenue from the oil sands. Now, with oil at less than $55.00 a barrel, we are estimated to be collecting around $0.55 per barrel (1%) in royalties. Even when the price of oil was at its highest, Albertans might have only been collecting 40% from the net revenue of the oil sands.
As the owners of the natural resources, Albertans are within their right to ask for and expect to receive their fair share from the resources in our province.
Ed Stelmach was the last Premier who attempted to change the royalty structure and he faced a severe backlash from the oil and gas industry. With close ties to corporate Calgary, it is unlikely that Mr. Prentice will want to touch the issue of royalties.
Corporate and personal taxes in Alberta are estimated to be $11 billion lower than any other province in Canada. It is believed that a 5% increase for personal incomes above $150k could bring in an estimated $1.13 billion in revenue for the government. It is also estimated that each 1% increase in corporate taxes would bring $500 million in revenue.
Unfortunately, as is usually the case in politics, the loudest voices get the most attention. And Mr. Prentice’s hint of a 9% funding cut for public services has been followed by a barrage of opinion-editorials from market fundamentalists and the tax outrage industry calling on the province to slash health care and education funding.
Other opinion-makers, like the City of Edmonton’s Chief Economist, John Rose, warn that provincial budget cuts to combat the falling price of oil will have a negative impact on the economy. Mr. Rose also suggested the province have a serious discussion about a provincial sales tax.
Alberta is the one jurisdiction in Canada that has the capacity to weather this kind of economic downturn. Rather than relying on short-sighted budget cuts that are sure to only cost more money in the long-term, Alberta’s political leaders have an opportunity to redefine how our province prepares for its future.
In Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character finally ends the time-loop after doing a great job on his reporting assignment and finding true love. Maybe Alberta’s version of Groundhog Day will end with meaningful revenue reform. It is not a motion picture ending, but it would be good of the future of our province.
Alberta Election Google Hangout!
We are launching a sequel to the popular EdmontonPolitics.com Google Hangout. Tune in tonight at 7:00 p.m. to join Mack Male, Ryan Hastman and I for the first Alberta Election Google Hangout.