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Alberta's opposition still doesn't get the spending problem

September 19, 2019
Alberta's opposition still doesn't get the spending problem

Tick tock. Alberta’s debt clock is climbing, debt interest payments are rising. Yet Alberta’s New Democrat opposition MLAs seem strangely uninterested in saving taxpayers’ money.

Alberta’s NDP has kicked off its nearly month-long shadow-budget tour, and taxpayers are left wondering whether the opposition will ignore the majority of Alberta voters who gave the government a clear mandate to get its fiscal house in order and lower taxes.

An expert panel led by former Saskatchewan New Democratic finance minister, Janice MacKinnon, recently released it’s Blue Ribbon report that shows Albertans are being overcharged by $10 billion every year for services compared to provinces such as British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec.

With the government overcharging Albertans by $10 billion every year, you’d think the opposition would have a number of ideas for reducing costs. But aside from opposing the $30 million funding for the war room to take on opposition to Alberta’s resource sector, there’s largely been crickets from the NDP.

Instead, the NDP will be on its budget tour discussing “the consequences of the kinds of cuts” that are coming down the pipeline because “Albertans won't have a chance to have their say before schools, hospitals, and the services their families rely on are cut,” according to the party’s budget video and website.

There’s nothing wrong with government or opposition consulting Albertans, but it’s important to ask the right questions.

The Alberta government has been on the runaway spending train for too long.

If the provincial government simply held program spending increases to growth in household income beginning under the Klein government in 1998, spending would be $18 billion less today. The Progressive Conservatives doubled program spending between 2004 and 2015. Then the NDP increased spending by over 16 per cent.

Decades of poor decisions made across the partisan spectrum got us into this mess, but the opposition is doing Albertans no favours by pretending the spending problem doesn’t exist.

Albertans have been forced to pay for the government’s spending problem through a swath of tax hikes including higher taxes on income, businesses, tobacco, train fuel and liquor, along with the carbon tax.

Higher taxes made the tough times tougher, but taxpayers haven’t yet paid the full price of the government’s overspending. Albertans will be in for a rude awakening when we need to pay the piper for the government’s growing debt tab.

For every second the opposition spends on its budget tour lecturing about the dangers of spending cuts, Alberta’s government debt will be increasing by hundreds of dollars.

“Without further action, by 2022/23 the debt will be nearly $102 billion, which is $22,070 for every man, woman and child in the province,” states the MacKinnon report.

Then there’s the interest charges on that government debt. If the government doesn’t stop overcharging Albertans, annual interest payments could climb to $3.7 billion in 2022.

That’s about $800 per person or $3,200 for a family of four in just one year. And instead of paying for something useful such as helping to build a hospital or buy new school textbooks, it’s going straight into the pockets of bond fund managers on Bay Street. The MacKinnon panel noted that the billions of dollars in debt interest payments in 2022 could pay for more than 30,000 teachers or 35,000 long-term care beds.

There is a clear role for Alberta’s opposition party given the current spending and debt problems facing the province. Every time Alberta’s United Conservatives are tempted to give business lobbyists a taxpayer-funded loan or grant, take an overpriced taxpayer trip or reduce transparency, Alberta’s NDP opposition should be all over them.

Pretending the spending problem doesn’t exist or ignoring the voters of Alberta who gave the government a clear mandate to balance the budget and cut taxes doesn’t help.

This column was originally published in the Edmonton Sun on September 18, 2019.

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