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Opinion Alberta keeps quiet on carbon tax impact: Wrong – and ridiculous

When one of the policy centrepieces of your government is a controversial price on carbon, there is an onus to justify its existence. Particularly, when a government is introducing the tax at a time when the provincial economy is completely in the tank and billions are being borrowed just to pay operating expenses.

The details of the Alberta government's carbon levy were supposed to be spelled out in the budget tabled on Thursday. And there were certainly lots of numbers about how much more consumers will be expected to pay at the pumps as a result of the tax and how much money the carbon levy will bring in to the treasury. But when it came to arguably the most important number – how much Greenhouse Gas Emissions will be reduced as a result of the tax – the government wasn't saying.

There is apparently modelling locked away in a government vault somewhere that paints a theoretical picture of just how much cleaner the air will be as a result of this new tax, according to government officials. But those projections are not being released publicly.

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That, I can assure you, is not going to go over well with a public that has been told, repeatedly, by NDP Premier Rachel Notley that the carbon tax was essential for the future economic health of the province. It was a way to bring down emissions, which was vital if the province was going to repair its terrible environmental record, which was necessary to convince others to help Alberta get its oil to new markets. So people were told.

Now the government is refusing to release the figures upon which that rationale is based. That is not only wrong, it's ridiculous.

This is not to say that bringing in a carbon tax is the wrong idea; it is absolutely the right one. It's just that when you introduce it, finally, and you're telling people how much money they'll be pulling out of their wallets to pay for it, then you need to demonstrate how it is going to pay off in carbon reductions – otherwise it looks like just another cash grab.

Equally puzzling is the fact that 60 per cent of Albertans are going to receive a full or partial rebate on the tax, which surely defeats the purpose of it. Maybe that is why no one was rushing to declare how much GHG emissions will be reduced under the program.

It will not be the only aspect of this budget for which Premier Notley will be under attack. The Premier had warned Albertans how bad the numbers in this budget would be. An oil crash of the dimensions the province has witnessed will do that. Still, it is shocking to see just how much debt the province will accumulate over the next few years. By 2018-19, the provincial debt is expected to be nearly $58 billion. That will be 15.5 per cent of GDP.

It was only six months ago, the province brought in legislation that prohibited any government from allowing the debt-to-GDP ratio to exceed 15 per cent. Now that law will have to be ripped up. Finance Minister Joe Ceci said that henceforth there will be no cap on debt. This year alone the government will have to borrow more than $5 billion just to cover operating expenses – the first time the province has had to do that since 1994.

The government doesn't plan to return to balance until 2024. Details of how that will happen, of course, don't exist.

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Scarce, too, were details about how the government will create 100,000 jobs over the next few years. In a $50 billion budget, the NDP set aside $250 million for its much-touted employment plan. In a briefing with reporters, Mr. Ceci had a difficult time explaining many aspects of his budget, and badly fumbled his way through an answer on how these jobs will be created or what kind of jobs they will be.

Despite the urging of virtually every economist in the province, Ms. Notley resisted the temptation to introduce a sales tax to raise much-needed revenues. This, of course, would have been heresy. No one wants to be the first government to introduce a sales tax in Alberta; this is a point of provincial pride.

Instead what the government does is get that revenue at the pump. The tax on gasoline will rise to 19 cents a litre by 2019, from nine cents a litre just over a year ago. But at least this allows hard-hit Albertans to be able to say they don't have a sales tax. Which makes about as much sense as many aspects of this budget.

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