Ah, crafting budgets in Alberta, or as the Grateful Dead would say, What A Long Strange Trip It Has Been.
It must be nice to live in a place like Prince Edward Island or Kansas where things are stable, predictable, boring, nice, calm, rational – places where people simply figure out how much money is coming in, generally and politely figure out where it should be spent, agree to save a little bit just in case, and then go back to minding their own business.
This, as you may suspect, does not describe Alberta.
Annual provincial budgets in Alberta are political, philosophical, social and intellectual battlefields where the various moving parts of the sometimes-conservative movement fight over every last piece of ground, every last dollar, the relevance of every government program, every possible argument of the size of government, and in the end the role of government itself.
Alberta budgets are where daggers are drawn and both families and friendships are riven by debates over debt and borrowing, deficits and surpluses, financial reporting protocols (or not), truth and fiction, saints and sinners, myths, mistakes and miracles.
The story of Alberta budgets is the story of a resource-based economy with the unpredictability of a three-year-old child’s temper.
They are also the story of changing government administrations that have veered wildly between frugality and frivolity.
In his fourteen years as premier, Peter Lougheed had 13 surpluses, but tabled one deficit towards the end that many believe alerted him that trouble was coming, and he took that as the signal to bail out.
The star-crossed Don Getty never tabled a single surplus budget in his seven years as premier, and piled up the debt to frightening levels as he tried to spend his way out of the problem.
My former boss Ralph Klein accepted two early deficits as the price to pay while cutting spending that led to eleven consecutive surpluses, some of them gargantuan in size, all of which went to paying off the debt.
Ed Stelmach enjoyed one early surplus, and then ran up four straight deficits trying to fight off the effects of the 2008 Great Recession, and started draining Alberta’s savings account in a process which has continued to this day.
Along the way, from 1971 through 2012, Albertans with varying degrees of glee or grumpiness kept voting for the incumbent government, but 41 years is a long time, even for the most durable marriage.
It is not for me to congratulate or criticize the current Alberta government’s 2014-15 budget’s priorities. I am not privy to the internal assumptions that led them to make the choices they made.
Believe me, I am no economist or accountant – my grade three math teacher told my mom when I was growing up in Swift Current, Sask., that ‘if numbers are in Roddy’s future, then Roddy has no future’.
But a revenue pie chart, I get. And an expense pie chart I can get.
The current Alberta government has introduced a new set of financial statements that making doing the math difficult, and needs clarification.
There is undeniably another deficit, undeniably more borrowing and thus undeniably more debt.
And while Albertans are always deeply interested and concerned about the numbers and the math of public finance, there is always a larger question when budgets are tabled, given our roller coaster ride as a resource-based economy: where does this budget take us?
A question worthy of the Grateful Dead themselves.
Rod Love is a consultant who was chief of staff to former Alberta premier Ralph Klein
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