Premier Alison Redford of Alberta deserves praise for having apparently had second thoughts about her fiscal policy. Late last month, she said she would give priority to diversification of the economy over spending controls, but the budget delivered on Thursday by Doug Horner, the Minister of Finance, limited spending to last year’s level: a 0-per-cent increase.
Not surprisingly, the voracious maw known as the health-care budget is one major exception, but at least it is to be held to 3-per-cent growth. Still, health will take up 45 per cent of all operational spending. Education, on the other hand, another huge item in modern budgets, will get no discernible increase – rather unexpectedly, as teachers appear to have been important supporters of Ms. Redford, both in her successful party leadership campaign and the subsequent general election.
The budget is understandably attracting many accusations of broken promises, from the Wildrose Party and others, but in the circumstance of a 46-per-cent decline in the government’s resource revenues, the honouring of all campaign pledges would have been folly.
The provincial government’s projections on its own revenues and on energy prices are still not as cautious as they should be, but at any rate the problem of the narrowing market for Alberta oil and gas has been forthrightly acknowledged.
The comparison to the previous budget is not made easier – for citizens (including journalists) – by its division into capital, operational and saving budgets. Nonetheless, this is healthy progress toward an accounting that is closer to that of business, and over the coming few years will give a truer picture of where the government and the broader public sector stand. This new regime encourages the building of infrastructure, the value of which is realized over many years.
All this is to be laid down in a new Fiscal Management Act (now a bill). Of course a majority government can override the restrictions it contains, but the statute’s rules will exert some moral suasion.
When Ms. Redford became premier, she was welcomed by many for her intelligence. She has now begun to demonstrate her fiscal intelligence in practice.