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Alberta budget delivers sweeter language, same old 'fiscal reckoning,' and no path to balance

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Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews reads his budget speech in a COVID-19-safe Legislature as Premier Jason Kenney looks on. Image credit: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr - Photograph by EPIC Photography/Legislative Assembly Office

When Finance Minister Travis Toews got up on his hind legs in the Alberta legislature to read his 2021 budget speech Thursday afternoon, there wasn't as much tough talk about the coming "fiscal reckoning" as Albertans are accustomed to.

Instead of the kind of language the United Conservative Party used to love using to fire up its perpetually angry base, Toews talked soothingly about a "historic investment in health care" and thanked medical workers for their courage on the front lines of the battle against COVID-19.

But while his tone was sweeter than the language we used to hear from Premier Jason Kenney in the first days after he united the right and defeated Rachel Notley's NDP government, beneath the honey lurked the same old reckoning.

Across the public sector, the UCP plans to pay public employees $1 billion less this year than it did in 2020.

"To each and every Albertan who works in the public sector, I say thank you for the work you do," Toews piously intoned. "Many of you have gone above and beyond your regular responsibilities responding to needs created by the pandemic. Your contribution matters and has not gone unnoticed."

But they're still going to have to take a pay cut, he added. The details weren't spelled out in his speech, though. You'll have to estimate them from what you can find in the fiscal plan.

But if you want to know how quickly front-line pandemic heroes turn into back-of-the-line zeroes in Jason Kenney's Alberta, there's your answer.

You can tell from the fiscal plan that the UCP proposes to slash $1.2 billion from public health-care workers' pay and benefits over the next two years. They also plan to add 2,940 new full-time equivalent health-care jobs this year -- which will come to quite a few more than 3,000 workers.

So, obviously, something's gotta give there. The government will say these changes can be implemented without hurting the quality of care. That is a dubious proposition, of course. If they manage to do it, it won't be pretty.

Post-secondary education will also take a brutal hit. Colleges, universities and technical institutions facea 14 per cent funding cut. Public schools will lose at least $27 million in instructional funding, the Alberta Teachers Association said, while private schools will get a $20-million boost.

So by the time the dust has settled, it looks like another 15,000 Albertans will have lost their jobs. That's the estimate of the NDP opposition, which may or may not have its flaws, but it's all we've got tonight because the government hasn't provided us with its estimate.

It doesn't take a Nobel Prize in economics to know that's not going to do anything to help the province's post-recession, post-pandemic economy, even if it makes a few bitter folks in the private sector feel better. If you ask a Nobel Prize-winning economist, he'll confirm that for you.

In other words, while the radical austerity talk seems to be over -- presumably a response to some analysis by the UCP of what's making Premier Kenney so unpopular and causing their once-assured re-election chances to rapidly diminish -- radical austerity remains his agenda.

Different vocabulary, same old ideology.

It must have almost broken Toews's hard heart, but he conceded in his speech that "it has become clear that, even after we've beat the pandemic, there will be a residual need for extra resources in health care."

But many things in the budget came from the same old UCP playbook.

Alberta will be sticking with fossil fuels, thank you very much. "Oil and gas are still among the most productive and highest-paid industries in the nation." We're still fighting carbon taxes where we find them. We're still blaming the federal government for our problems. We're still basing our plans on the tendentious claims and dubious Fraser Institute research of the MacKinnon panel, named for Janice MacKinnon, the former Saskatchewan NDP finance minister notorious for closing down rural hospitals throughout that province.

Plus, of course, there will be no new taxes.

Some observers thought they heard a hint in Toews's speech that the UCP might actually be pondering a sales tax, if not now, maybe someday.

That's how the Calgary Herald's Don Braid interpreted Toews's aside that "a third-party review of the efficiency and appropriateness of our revenue structure will be important in the future."

Don't bet the farm on it. Even what's left of the premier's strategic brain trust must realize that opposition leader and former premier Rachel Notley's NDP could legitimately campaign against a sales tax without embarrassment.

One thing that certainly hasn't changed from generations of past Alberta budgets is that despite a big deficit and uncomfortably high debt, there's no real commitment to that hardy perennial of Conservative rhetoric, getting the budget back into balance.

"Once we can see our way clear of the pandemic, we will present a clear path and timeline for balancing the budget," Toews promised. That's one horizon likely to recede if the UCP can recover a firm grip on power, as long as corporate taxes stay low and they can use it to claim social programs aren't affordable and there's no alternative to privatization.

Even the reliably supportive Globe and Mail gently mocked Toews's promise in its headline: "Alberta budget projects $18.2-billion deficit and spending freeze to rebuild from pandemic -- but no path to balance."

Toews did say he was disappointed U.S. President Joe Biden pulled the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline. But he expressed no regret for the way Kenney gambled more than a billion dollars -- $1.3 billion according to a passing reference in the books -- on a bad bet that Donald Trump would be re-elected president and let the pipeline proceed. Indeed, he didn't mention that at all.

So if you're looking for auguries more promising than the one about the sales tax, it's in the plan for big cuts to public-sector pay.

Will the UCP brain trust's next risky bet be that if they can provoke a public-sector strike in health care or government, they can smear the NDP as too close to unions and thereby win the 2023 election?

Don't put it past them to try.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image credit: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr - Photograph by EPIC Photography/Legislative Assembly Office

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