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opinion

The fall has been as shocking as it’s been swift.

It was only 12 years ago that Alberta virtually had no debt. On top of that, it had $15.1-billion in one savings account and nearly $20-billion in another – its famed Heritage Fund.

And then it all began to unravel.

Since 2007-08, the government has recorded deficits in all but one year. This, inexplicably, after it enjoyed budgetary surpluses in the previous 14. Where did all that money go? What happened to former premier Peter Lougheed’s dream, to his vision of a fund built up from revenue derived from the province’s oil and gas riches, a trust of which all Albertans, present and future, could take advantage?

If nothing else, the budget tabled by the province’s United Conservative Party government on Thursday lays bare just how far the province has plunged since those heady days in the late 1970s and early 80s, when 30 per cent of the revenue generated by the oil and gas industry was deposited into the Heritage Fund. The portion of revenue deposited into the account dropped to 15 per cent in 1982 and was terminated altogether five years later.

The per-capita value of the Heritage Fund, adjusted for inflation, has been in steady decline since its high point in 1982, when it stood at roughly $11,000 (in 2019 dollars). Today, its value is less than half of that (about $4,000). Meantime, the amount of red ink the government is spilling continues to grow.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, right, claps after Finance Minister Travis Toews delivers the provincial budget in Edmonton on Oct. 24, 2019.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

In the current fiscal year, the province’s taxpayer-supported debt is expected to be nearly $68-billion. That figure is forecast to jump about $9-billion in the next year to $76.9-billion, increasing to $82.9-billion in 2021-22 and $87.8-billion the following year. Those are mind-boggling numbers for a province that once prided itself on having the cleanest balance sheet in North America. (The province’s debt-to-GDP ratio is expected to be 12.1 per cent in the upcoming fiscal year, still the lowest in the country.)

Operating deficits, once viewed as criminal in the province, have now become standard fare. The province is expected to be $7.5-billion in arrears in the current fiscal year, a number that is estimated to drop to $6.8-billion in 2020-21 and plummet dramatically to $2.7-billion the year after that. (Shockingly, the government has built no revenue forecast allowance into those budgets to provide a buffer for oil price volatility and other risks to its estimates.) The government is promising to post a surplus of $706-million in 2022-23.

Naturally, this all assumes that projections for the price of oil over that period remain viable. (Insert laugh line here.) The province has ridden the oil and gas roller coaster for so long now it doesn’t know how to get off.

The truth is, it’s not terribly smart economics to make something as fickle as oil revenue an essential part of your operating budget. Economists have been arguing this for years. The prudent thing to do would be to put those monies into the Heritage Fund or only use a set fraction of them for the annual budget. But that’s a fiscal impossibility now. That ship sailed long ago.

Given the dreadful shape of the province’s finances, what’s more surprising is that a government as right-wing as Premier Jason Kenney’s hasn’t taken a harder line on public-sector wages. How is it even possible that there are some in the Alberta public service receiving a wage increase of even one per cent in the current environment? And yet that appears to be the case.

When B.C. was struggling with its finances, particularly after the 2008 financial crisis, Liberal governments there made zero wage increases a regular fact of life for government workers. This is not something that is done easily in Alberta, it seems.

In so, so many ways, the province has only itself to blame for the fiscal mess in which it finds itself. Governments haven’t had the discipline to do the right thing for years. And the truth is, many in the province wouldn’t have stood for restraint anyway.

It always bears mentioning, of course, that the books wouldn’t be nearly as ugly as they are if the province had a sales tax, like exists everywhere else in Canada. With one as modest as 5 per cent, the fiscal nightmare in which the government is living could be transformed into a beautiful new reality.

But the lack of a sales tax is seen as a birthright here, so you can forget that. Maybe the day the debt reaches, oh, I don’t know, $200-billion, someone, somewhere, might present it as an idea whose time has finally come.