Albertans continue to pay for government debt—despite budget surpluses

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Appeared in the Edmonton Sun, February 14, 2024
Albertans continue to pay for government debt—despite budget surpluses

Thanks in large part to a windfall in resource revenue, the Alberta government has been running budget surpluses since 2021/22. Yet at the same time, as budget season approaches, Albertans are paying more and more for the cost of government debt.

Prior to the recent string of surpluses, during a period of relatively low resource revenue, Alberta incurred nearly uninterrupted deficits from 2008/09 to 2020/21. A deficit is simply when the government spends more than it collects in revenue in a given year—and it leads to debt accumulation.

Indeed, Alberta went from a net financial asset position of $35.0 billion in 2007/08 to a net debt position of $59.5 billion in 2020/21. In other words, the province’s finances deteriorated by nearly $95 billion.

Of course, the burden of government debt ultimately falls on Alberta families, today and in the future, because governments must pay interest on their debt—and that interest ultimately is raised from Albertans through taxes. As the government accumulated more and more debt, debt interest costs increased from $61 per Albertan in 2007/08 to a projected $672 per Albertan in 2023/24. Servicing the debt also diverts resources away from services such as health care and education.

Unfortunately, debt interest costs don’t just disappear when you run surpluses, even with the Alberta government using a share of these surpluses to pay down debt. Instead, due to the amount of debt accumulated, and higher interest rates, Albertans will actually see government debt interest costs increase and reach $687 per Albertan by 2025/26.

This is why it’s so important for governments to practise fiscal prudence, in good times and bad. Rather than increasing spending during the good times (i.e. periods of relatively high resource revenue) as successive Alberta governments have done in the past, then running deficits when relatively high resource revenue inevitably declines, the Smith government should restrain spending.

How? For starters, the government can limit the amount of resource revenue included in the budget using a rainy-day account based on the previous Alberta Sustainability Fund (ASF), which was established in 2003 to “stabilize” a specific amount of resource revenue for the budget, thus limiting the amount of money available for annual spending. The idea was simple; save some resource revenue during good times to ensure a stable amount of resource revenue for the budget during bad times.

Unfortunately, the previous ASF was based in statutory law, which meant its rules were easily changed and the government discarded the fund entirely in 2013. The Smith government should instead establish the specific amount of resource revenue for the budget as a “constitutional rule,” which would make it more difficult to change in the future.

Government debt comes with big costs for Albertans—and those costs don’t simply disappear when the province runs a surplus. For true fiscal stability, the government needs a fundamentally new approach. The upcoming budget is a good place to start.

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