(As posted at JoeyO.ca)
On June 24th, 2010, the provincial government released a fiscal update. The long and short of it was, "the 2010 budget said the deficit would be $4.7 Billion, but in reality it's $1 Billion".
Which is GOOD. I would MUCH rather be spending $1 Billion more than we have, than to be spending $4.7 Billion more than we have.
The PC's rightly point out that we in Alberta were in a unique position to weather the economic storm, because PC Governments had the foresight to open a "savings account" to draw on during bad times. More happy news from the report included the information that, due to the rise in the markets, the Heritage Savings Trust Fund earned $2 Billion - far more than the $711 Million initially forecast. As a matter of fact, with earnings of $2 Billion, and a budget deficit of $1 Billion, it looks as though the worst may be over, and it might be time to invest in black ink again. This is good news, right?
But... it's still not GOOD. It's BAD.
I'd understand if the deficit was 100% based on one-time infrastructure and education spending, to help Albertans in the skilled trades keep their families fed and help those "downsized" to find new vocations during the economic downturn. I'd be FINE with that - better than fine, in fact. That would be a sterling example of government being a force for good in the society.
The reality, though, is that we're in this situation because of program spending. There is fat in the system, make no mistake about that. We need to - ALL of us - sit down and have a real, adult conversation about what we're spending, and what we're spending it on, and how to do better. Press releases from the opposition demanding "More for Health!" or "Spend Less On Everything!" aren't helpful - they're exactly the opposite. Should we be funding chiropractic care? Let's talk about it. Should there be tax incentives for making healthy choices? Increased "sin taxes" on alcohol and tobacco? What about the funding model for our schools? Arts programs charge hundreds of dollars in fees at the high school level - is that okay with us?
Much of the reduction of the forecast deficit is as result of increased non-gas resource royalties. These are absolutely critical to our funding model - as we saw quite clearly when activity in the energy sector dried up recently. To this day, the Wildrose Party insists that moving the royalty rates upward was a near cataclysmic mistake by the Stelmach Tories, while opponents on the left say that we never would have RUN a deficit, had Alberta been getting a bigger share of resource revenue from producers.
Clearly, even with hindsight, the politicians can't agree on what to do.
We need to have these discussions, as a people. They're too important to leave to the politicians.
Because while they're going to be doing and saying what they need to in order to keep their own jobs, and support their own families in the short term - it's the only job in the world that you can be terminated, without cause, every 4 years and have your job given to someone else because they've got better hair - we need to think about what life is going to look like 10, 20, and 50 years down the line for us and our families and the next generation of Albertans... no matter WHO is sitting in the Legislature.
That's the greatest responsibility we have as citizens. Not voting. Not shoveling your neighbour's walk. Not picking up after the dog in the park.
We are the stewards of the future of this place. It's time to talk about what we're going to do with it.
Not like politicians.