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In an Alberta election campaign where policy has taken a back seat to personality, the important issue of the province’s fiscal sustainability has generally remained under the radar. It has largely escaped broad public attention that the NDP has presented the most radical, and credible, plan in decades to get government finances off their perpetual boom-and-bust roller coaster.

Now, they just have to get elected.

The NDP’s economic platform includes a proposal to set a cap on the amount of oil and natural gas royalties that the government would use in its annual budget to fund its spending needs. Any royalty revenues above that level would go toward debt reduction and/or savings.

The objective is to break the provincial government free from its reliance on oil and gas royalties, which have been a massive boon to its finances, yet have left the province vulnerable to resource price swings that have gutted budget revenues in past downturns. It should be central to any discussion about the province’s long-term financial stability. And yet few people are talking about it. Last week’s leaders’ debate between NDP Leader Rachel Notley and incumbent United Conservative Party Leader Danielle Smith all but ignored the question.

Perhaps this isn’t a pressing election issue because it’s not an immediate problem for Alberta, which is in the midst of a resource upswing. In the 2022-23 budget year, resource royalties delivered 36 per cent of Alberta’s total revenues. The result was a budget surplus of an estimated $10-billion – which is great news, but with a huge asterisk. It’s utterly unsustainable.

In the previous budget year, resource royalties were 24 per cent of revenues. The year before that, in the midst of the COVID-19-induced plunge in commodity prices, they were just 7 per cent.

No government can reasonably budget with such wild and near-unpredictable revenue swings. Yet Alberta has been doing so for decades – spending big in the good times and hoping to weather the bad. It’s a lousy fiscal model. The NDP experienced that in a major way when it was last elected in 2015, arriving just in time for the collapse in global energy prices that sent the province into a multiyear fiscal crater of deep deficits and rising debts.

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The architect of the party’s proposed solution is Todd Hirsch, former chief economist of government-owned bank ATB Financial, and one of the province’s best-known economic experts. The NDP hired Mr. Hirsch last fall, shortly after he retired from ATB, to craft a credible fiscal plan that they could carry into this spring’s election.

The proposal is short on specific figures and targets, but the principle is to rely only on a level of the resource revenue stream that is reliably sustainable over the longer term, and budget accordingly – while using any surplus resource revenue toward longer-term financial goals, rather than spending it from year to year.

(The idea bears some similarity to the fiscal framework adopted by the Peter Lougheed government in the 1970s, which set aside 30 per cent of resource royalties for the rainy-day Heritage Trust Fund. The province abandoned that commitment amid weak oil prices in the 1980s; subsequent governments have had their hands in the royalty cookie jar ever since.)

With the May 29 vote just days away, Mr. Hirsch declined to be interviewed for this column. But when I talked with him in Calgary last October – shortly after his retirement, and just a couple of weeks before the NDP enlisted him – he talked at some length about the need for the province to tame its reliance on those volatile resource revenues.

“The way I would do it, if I had the choice, is … just look at your revenue pie, and say, ‘No more than 10 per cent of our revenue is going to come from oil and gas,’ ” Mr. Hirsch said. “It should never be 25 or 30 per cent – this is madness.”

The UCP established its own plan for fiscal stability in its March budget, passing legislation that prohibits budgeting for deficits except in specific, unusual circumstances – and even then, requiring a rapid return to balance. But the UCP’s plan doesn’t have any prescription for assuring that such prudent and conservative budgeting is achieved. The NDP plan proposes a much more meaningful blueprint.

To put it into action, Ms. Notley will have to win next Monday’s vote – and that prospect looks less likely now than it did a few weeks ago. The UCP has pulled into a slight but distinct lead in recent polls.

The NDP may have created a roadblock for itself in another of its key economic policies that has garnered a lot more attention: a plan to raise the corporate tax rate to 11 per cent from 8 per cent. The proposal has raised concern in the business community – despite the NDP’s plan to balance that increase off by eliminating the provincial small-business tax entirely. Meanwhile, the UCP’s big tax plum is a promise to cut personal income taxes – always a popular tactic with voters.

What’s being lost in the shuffle is a serious and long-overdue prescription for the chronic ailment at the core of Alberta’s finances. If the NDP and Ms. Notley come out on the losing end of this election, it may be a great opportunity lost.