“They don’t know what to do with tough economic times. It was easy enough to govern when the money was flowing in, when things were going well. They took all the credit for it at that time. It’s much harder to govern, and the mark of a good government is how they handle it, when times get difficult.” – Ray Martin, Leader of the Official Opposition (June 13, 1986)
Despite Alberta’s prosperity, Premier Jim Prentice is warning we could be heading into tough economic times. The decline in the world price of oil has spooked the 43-year governing Progressive Conservative establishment and the corporate elites in downtown Calgary.
The perilous “price trough” has led Mr. Prentice to warn of a potential $7 billion revenue shortfall if oil prices remain at lower than expected levels for the entire 2015/2016 fiscal year. According to a government spokesperson, some of the missing $7 billion could come from revenue streams such as land leases, but at this point the number is largely based in speculation and politically spin.
Mr. Prentice’s prophetic $7 billion shortfall becomes more startling when learning the Alberta Government is projected to collect only $7.5 billion in crude oil and bitumen royalty revenue in the 2014/2015 budget year. This projected revenue is based on the price of Western Canada Select (WCS) oil remaining at $77.18 per barrel. Although the yearly average price is $84.02 per barrel the current price of WCS has dropped to $48.44 per barrel.
If the “tough economics times” message sounds vaguely familiar, that is because it is. In oil-rich Alberta, we hear a lot from our political leaders about tough economic times, even when times are prosperous. In most cases, our politicians are managing voters’ expectations and positioning themselves to take credit as ‘prudent fiscal managers’ when the world-wide price of oil inevitably increases.
“Meeting the Challenge of Tough Times” was the name of the three-year economic plan launched by Premier Ed Stelmach’s PC government in 2009.
The sharp decline of natural gas royalty revenue and that year’s world-wide recession, which felt more like a mild economic pause in Alberta, even convinced the Tories to amend the Klein-era Fiscal Responsibility Act to allow the government to pass deficit budgets.
And in January 2013, Premier Alison Redford used a televised address to warn Albertans that a $8 billion shortfall in the provincial budget was being caused by an ominous “bitumen bubble.” Ms. Redford’s bubble was then used as justification to slash funding to colleges and universities by 7% in that year’s budget.
But the PCs have not always predicted “tough economic times.” In 2012, then-finance minister Ron Liepert told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce to expect $16 billion in projected resource revenues by 2015. A huge jump in revenue would certainly increase the likelihood of Mr. Prentice calling a provincial election in early 2015.
Alberta’s government has heavily depended on revenue from cyclically priced resource commodities for decades. After years of unrestrained growth, no one should be surprised that Alberta’s economy could slow down.
The question is how we respond to actual tough economic times in Alberta. Was NDP Official Opposition Leader Ray Martin correct in 1986 when he said that “they don’t know what to do with tough economic times”?
While some right-wing think tanks call for a return to brutal slash and burn fiscal policies, the implementation of real long-term financial planning would probably be a more mature solution.
Norway, a country with 5.1 million people, invests oil revenues into the Government Pension Fund Global and contains more than $857 billion. The fund was established in 1990 to smooth out the disruptive effects of highly fluctuating oil prices. Oil-rich jurisdictions like Norway prove that economies can be both economically prosperous and environmentally green.
Alberta, a province of 3.6 million people, launched the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund in 1976. Under the leadership of Peter Lougheed, the Heritage Fund initially received 30% of government resource revenues and was worth $12.7 billion in 1986. The Heritage Fund is now worth only $17.4 billion.
Facing tough economic times in 1987, the PC government of Don Getty halted all transfers to the Heritage Fund. Zero deposits were made between 1987 and 2004.
This week, PC MLAs passed Bill 11: Savings Management Repeal Act, which repealed the Savings Management Act, which was enthusiastically passed by the same group of PC MLAs in March 2014. The earlier bill would have diverted resource revenue to the newly created Alberta Future Fund, Social Innovation Endowment account and Agriculture and Food Innovation Endowment. The bill passed this week eliminates those new funds.
Despite talk of revenue diversification, it is questionable whether the governing PCs would seriously consider increasing resource royalties, reinstating a progressive taxation system or introducing a provincial sales tax.
While many politicians view tax increases as politically unpalatable, a slight tax increase would not destroy the our province’s economy. “If Alberta increased its tax rates by $11 billion our province would still have the lowest tax rate in Canada,” Kevin Taft wrote in his 2012 book, Follow the Money.
Dr. Taft’s book breaks down government spending patterns over the past 30 years and details how corporate profits have skyrocketed in Alberta at the same time the PC Government has struggled with deficit budgets.
As a province with decades worth of dependence on revenues from natural resource royalties, it should not be a shock that we need to be smarter about how we plan and finance our government spending. Maybe our only problem is not our over reliance on cyclical natural resources revenues, but that the Progressive Conservatives are just bad fiscal managers.
Primetime Politics this week…
On this week’s Alberta Primetime politics panel, I joined Rob Breakenridge, Roberto Noce and host Michael Higgins to discuss the Gay-Straight Alliance debate, Moe Amery‘s texting-while-driving-demerits bill, and Bill 2: Alberta Accountability Act.