Alberta—from fiscal leader to fiscal laggard

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Appeared in the Calgary Herald, September 16, 2017

What a difference a decade makes.

In 2007/08, Alberta had a balanced budget and was the only province whose financial assets exceeded its debts. In fact, the province’s net financial position (after adjusting for debt) stood at $35 billion—a nest egg to benefit future generations. At the time, but not without challenges brewing, Alberta enjoyed the strongest public finances in Canada.

Ten years later, things have changed dramatically. Thanks to rapid spending growth by successive governments and a long string of budget deficits (exacerbated in recent years by the drop in oil prices), Alberta has frittered away its $35 billion and at the end of this year will carry $23 billion in net debt. This year alone the budget deficit stands at more than $10 billion, and with no end to deficits in sight, the debt will reach $45 billion by 2019/20 according to the government’s latest budget.

That means in just 12 years, the province’s net financial position will have deteriorated by a staggering $80 billion.

Alberta’s pace of debt accumulation today is far faster than any other province. In fact, Alberta is expected to be responsible for 43 per cent of all provincial debt accumulation in Canada this year, despite being home to approximately 12 per cent of the country’s population.

Yes, Alberta currently has a smaller government debt burden than any other province. But that may not be true for long. At the current pace, Alberta’s debt per person will exceed British Columbia’s within two years and surpass Saskatchewan in a year or two more. And if Alberta continues to rack up debt at its current pace (almost $3,000 per Albertan per year) it will catch-up with Canada’s most indebted provinces such as Ontario and Quebec within a decade.

Clearly, Alberta has gone from being a fiscal leader to a laggard.

Alberta’s fall from fiscal grace is sad but not uncommon. Canadian history is replete with examples of once strong and fiscally sound provinces stumbling, and of former fiscal laggards controlling spending and shrinking their debt burdens.

Consider Quebec, with its historical reputation for poor fiscal management that’s starting to change as the province expects a third straight balanced budget this year with plans to completely stop adding new debt. As a result, the province is shrinking its debt burden and introducing modest tax relief (although Quebec has much work to do to enhance its tax competitiveness).

Of course, Quebec receives equalization payments while Alberta does not. But this shouldn’t distract from the fact that Quebec has made hard choices to eliminate chronic deficits and get its fiscal house in order.

Put simply, there’s no guarantee that a province’s sound finances today will remain sound tomorrow. Things can, and often do, change quickly. It’s an important lesson for Alberta. Over the past 20 years, many Albertans have grown used to their province having the soundest finances in Canada. However, that’s quickly changing and, if current trends continue, Alberta may lose even more ground and solidify its dubious position as one of Canada’s fiscal laggards.

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