Leading public-policy thinkers from all points on the political spectrum are urging Alberta to do something that normally wouldn’t be uttered in public: Introduce new taxes. The chorus of calls in sales-tax-free Alberta came at a weekend economic summit in Calgary convened by Premier Alison Redford, as she looks for long-term solutions to an energy revenue shortcoming of $6-billion in the provincial budget. Investment banker George Gosbee is a long-time Tory supporter and occasional Wildrose Party donor, a one-time board member of the $70-billion Alberta Investment Management Corp. and was called on by Finance Minister Jim Flaherty to help guide the federal Conservative budget. He explains to The Globe and Mail’s Dawn Walton why he is among the vocal advocates.
Alberta understands what position it is in financially, but how do you explain it to the rest of Canada, because I think the rest of Canada thinks Alberta is doing pretty well.
I think Alberta’s beginning to realize the situation and now it’s about time that everybody else across Canada understands. Albertans have only been paying for 70 per cent of their services since 2000; 30 per cent has been coming from royalty revenue and the royalty revenue is changing. We have a major decline in natural-gas royalties starting in 2008 and now we have a real problem with not being able to sell our crude [oil.] We’re selling that at a huge discount. Our revenue that we relied upon for 30 per cent of our spending is declining substantially, and it’s not a supply-demand-type equation. It’s an infrastructure issue mainly of what passes through a pipeline.
Until we get that and until we can get a closing in the differential, we’re not going to get back that revenue. And that’s going to take a long time, so we have to find how to adjust how our revenue-cost is going to be going forward.
What impact has Alberta’s spending habits over the past few premiers had on what’s happening?
If you go back to the [Ralph] Klein era, there was a real big under-spending. It was almost draconian. In the last couple decades we’ve had to play a bit of a catch-up especially when we’ve had massive immigration, massive GDP, massive jobs, so we had to play some catch-up. I think it’s tough to look at the last five years without looking at what happened during the Klein era.
There’s a lot of catch-up going on and to be honest with you, with the way our population expectation is going – 100,000 people a year, 1.3 million more by 2033 – we have to be able to continue to provide spending on infrastructure and services.
So do we have a spending problem or are we trying to catch-up and keep up?
We have a revenue problem. And the revenue problem was we relied on what I call luxury revenue. We now have to go back to the citizens of Alberta and get them to pay for the services that we provide. We can’t be spending this revenue; can’t be counting on it. We’ve got to be saving some for future generations. We’re going to have to be just like every other jurisdiction and first world nation: we have to put a sales tax in.
And you suggest 5 per cent, but that could drop when the differential changes? (The “differential” refers to the gap, and the resulting drop in royalties, between the price Alberta energy companies receive for a barrel of oil and the price that’s set on the international market and budgeted for by the province.)
Five per cent, [but] calling it a provincial sales tax is a bit more of a perception issue. ...You can [reduce it] once the differential seems to narrow and once we have uptake capacity in pipelines. But, this is years away before we’re going to be able to narrow that differential and get back that surging oil price. In that time, maybe [the differential tax] could disappear.
In the meantime, health-care premiums, which were done away with by premier Ed Stelmach, maybe those should come back?
We need everything we can get into health care right now. Looking at costs with health-care execution everywhere. Those health-care premiums, nobody was complaining about it. It wasn’t a big deal. Most people didn’t even realize they were paying it or employers paid. I think bringing that back is not a big issue. It’s another way to bring something back on the revenue side.
The province should sell ATB Financial as well?
ATB is sort of a liability with the government, along with the opportunity to take a profit. The government guarantees the savings of ATB. That’s a pretty big liability. I’m not saying anything bad is going to happen to it. But at the same point it, it’s been a very successful company and it would be great if it could stand up, diversify and really build a Canadian champion similar to other Alberta-based corporations have. [It could be worth] $4-billion [to the government] based on their last earnings.
These suggestions for solving part of our revenue problem, what’s the appetite for them?
Unfortunately, I grew up in this city and it’s always been “no sales tax,” “over my dead body.” But the basement’s changed. It’s not how it was five years ago … We have to change our thinking. we have to change our revenue model and we have to do away with these “over my dead body” type things and look for something better.
And in the meantime we’re waiting for pipelines maybe west, maybe east, maybe south?
We could be waiting a long time. We’ve been waiting for the Mackenzie Valley pipeline for 30 years. There’s a lot of moving parts and we can’t be waiting on that without doing something now, and to do mass draconian spending cuts will not serve the province well. It would really set us back. Cuts to personal income taxes – now that’s one way we could foster an investment climate here.
You also suggested lowering personal income tax from our current 10 per cent flat tax.
I’d even put income tax at zero.
If you’re a betting man, how many of your suggestions would you say would be implemented down the road?
I think all of them within two years.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Albertans pay for 7 per cent of their services since 2000. It has since been corrected.
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