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Election 2015: Voting Today on next Year’s Budget

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The problem with trying to be the first out the door with a budget analysis, is that things can change significantly in 24 hours. In the time it takes to hold a spring election you can still go without a detailed look at how a budget will play out – how provincial administration implements the budget, the real funding cuts or increases when you factor in a department’s deficit or surplus from the year before. The impact on individual programs, fees, contacts, etc, takes months to become clear.

For example, the Department of Human Services accumulated a $50 million deficit last year. The likely impact is that a 6% increase in funding for Persons with Disabilities is more likely to be a 1% increase in real dollars. This is certainly not enough to provide a promised pay increase for woefully underpaid disability workers, and most likely not enough to cover uptake in the system. But it’ll be months before the disability sector has a clear look at how this will affect contracts and front-line services.

Budget 2015/16 largely holds the line on spending, and there’ll be some blood letting in most places where you’ll find growth pressure. Not a lot, but it’ll be there. It’s not the worst that could be. Certainly not in a province that’s failed to accumulate savings despite forty years of selling in large quantities, the most valuable energy resource on the planet. That stripped billions from the treasury and potential savings to implement a flat tax, voted in on ideology and high resource revenues, rather than seemingly any kind of evidence-based fiscal plan for the decades ahead.

It’s the budget Premier Prentice, along with a Ten-Year Strategic ‘Plan’, will use to justify an early election.

The Premier’s Ten-Year Plan, is 30 pages (36 if you count the index and blanks) of not much content or specifics.

That nurses, doctors, and teachers will face a hard line in bargaining in the years ahead is not new. They endured this in the 90’s and will again. But we have no specifics and can hardly judge whether the Premier’s future collective bargaining tactics are worthy of a four-year mandate until we’ve actually seen specifics come out in a contract negotiation.

The lack of any real mention of corporate tax would seem to make it fairly certain, combined with the Premier’s statements to date, that corporate Alberta won’t see any additional tax increases on profits earned. So go ahead and judge the Premier on that one.

User fees will be rising. “We’re all in this together”, except I’ll refer you to the last paragraph.

The rest of the Ten Year Plan isn’t much more than you’d find reading government news releases. We know we’re over-dependant on energy resources. We’ve known that the hard way since Getty. We know the government has committed to building new schools. When they’ll be completed and when school boards will be able to staff them isn’t quite as known. You can go ahead and read the document here, it won’t take you long.

As for the Budget, it’s not this one that you should be voting on, but the next, as his government moves to cut $8.6 billion over three years.

Is there waste and overspending in gov? No doubt. If you’ve seen the AHS wage grids for upper management and executives, they’re enough to make you rethink your career choices if you’re not on the list.

But to essentially cut out something twice the size of the Department of Human Services over three years? Probably doable. But probably not without creating another massive infrastructure deficit, driving nurses, teachers and other professionals from the province and cutting deep into front-line services.

I don’t envy the Premier’s task, he’s been handed a mess and left to climb a mountain with little gear and old ropes. But it’s those around him who put him in this situation, his party that’s proven unable to manage the good times, save for the bad, and overcome infrastructure and economic deficits of their own creation.

When times are tough, people need help more than ever. They’ll find the price of food rising with a rising gas tax, and hopefully our food banks won’t be impacted much by a cut to the charitable tax credit. The political tax credit staying the same won’t do much for Fred and Martha. They’re more likely to drop a bad of food in the bin at Safeway than to renew their PC memberships.

The knife is coming to Alberta’s budget and public services. We’ll lose more blood than we pump in. Is this the surgical team that you want to trust for the next four years?  I’d like to ask Rachel Notley, Laurie Blakeman and Greg Clark for a second opinion.

Until the next boom floats us out to sea.

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The price of oil has fallen and it’s taken the sky down with it.

The price of oil has been falling and projected to fall for some time. It was projected when Jim Prentice was on the leadership campaign trail. It was projected while Prentice, Gordon Dirks and Stephen Mandel were on the byelection campaign trail. While promises were made for new schools and to complete the new schools promised by two previous Premiers. While sod was turned for photo-ops in fields that will remain empty for some time, and when Gordon Dirks was flexing the electoral muscle of his Ministry with promises of new school portables in his riding. While all four candidates to be government MLAs were sending empty chairs to candidate forums.

But now oil has hit bottom, at least for now, and $7 billion or so is gone from provincial revenues. The Premier’s plan thus far is to remove 5% from budget for the coming year, while withholding the 4% that would normally have gone to compensating for inflation, population growth and uptake in services.

An early election will be called, and voters will give a massive majority to the Prentice government.

The Wildrose will be led into battle by a leader who won’t be seeking re-election. The Liberals? There’s a very good chance David Swann will be in Legislature once the spring session resumes after the vote. Even if he’s only a caucus of one at that point. The Alberta Party? Calgary-Elbow has every reason to put an end to Gordon Dirks’ embarrassing tenure by electing AB Party Leader, Greg Clark. However, not everything needs a reason in politics (see MLA Genia Leskiw not needing any kind of articulate, sensible or coherent explanation for withdrawing $250,000 from the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate).

The Premier says that the opposition has a duty to be ready for an election.

Do they have a duty to be ready for a fixed election-date? Absolutely.

But with a year left on a his government’s mandate, an early election, without a dramatic plan to shift away from the poor fiscal management of Alberta’s PC government, is pure opportunism.

A dramatic shift being a clear and defined plan to finally remove Alberta from the resource roller-coaster and establish a course to stabilize government revenue. But there’s no sign yet that the Premier is coming to the table with a platform for a progressive tax system, royalty reform, heritage saving and so on. We may not even see a budget tabled before an election call.

So why wait until spring of 2016 for the next election? What’s in a year?

A year for Jim Prentice to develop an actual, detailed platform. To show voters how “new management” handles the books on the downside of resource dependence. A year for two opposition parties to elect new leaders. Time for all parties to finish developing a set of policies, and a heck of a lot of time for candidates to hit the doors, and for those who don’t have the benefit of incumbency or well-timed Ministry announcements, to let voters know who they are.

Alberta is more than the petrochemicals we drill and frack out of the ground. Our Premier can do better than drawing the curtains closed, dimming the lights and taking to the podium time after time with tales of fiscal woe.

Yes Mr. Premier, we know we’re dependant on oil revenue. We know there’s a glut of it on the market, demand is down and prices along with it. So what’s the plan, besides bloodletting until fortunes improve?

What’s our place in the world outside of non-renewable resources? What’s the future for education and healthcare, agriculture and farming? What’s in store for our cities in a province where population growth is in urban areas? How can we grow our economy by feeding the world’s population? How can develop and export knowledge, technology and renewable energy?

Just as important, how do we engage citizens to get there? We have a government that treats ‘consultation’ like a silly word, or perhaps a dirty one. The Legislature is a difficult building to walk into, even if all you want is a tour. Budgets, policies and decisions are treated as things developed behind closed doors, then sold and marketed to you and I.

This election certainly won’t be based on any of those broad ideas. It won’t feature detailed policy or broad debate on our future. No, it’s about securing the next four years for those who are comfortably unchallenged. What do they intend to do with these years? I doubt most sitting government MLAs could begin to tell you, beyond ‘fiscal restraint’ for the year ahead. We won’t know until months after an election, what that will actually mean for front-line delivery in areas like health, education and human services.

Cutting 9% from spending isn’t a plan for the future or a beacon of light and strong leadership by Mr. Prentice. It’s the hand (gently?) guiding us to the rocks until the next boom floats us back out to sea (we won’t waste the next one, right?).

So when you pick up that sharp pencil at the polling place, have a debate with yourself. Do you want this government to be comfortable for the next four years, or can we challenge ourselves and those we elect to do better? Voting for a candidate that’s challenging the government may be the only way we find out.