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Difficult financial decisions ahead for new Alberta government

Province's dire situation is made worse by the current economy
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It’s back to the future with Alberta’s financial books and this time around the sequel is going to be much tougher to pull off than the original.

About a quarter-century ago, then-provincial treasurer Jim Dinning was given the rather grim task of announcing just how deep in debt the province was after the big-spending Don Getty years had come to an inglorious end and Ralph Klein took the helm.

The sombre accounting followed an in-depth look-see from an independent committee, which resulted in all the fiscal skeletons being dragged from closets and cupboards and deposited in plain sight for Albertans to view. It was ugly.

But compared to what we are soon going to be told by newly minted Premier Jason Kenney, that previous financial comeuppance was mere child’s play – a small bump along the Alberta highway of financial life.

Kenney has followed the same route forged by Klein and Dinning, appointing a similar bunch of independent experts, including NDPers and Liberals for good measure, to look into the moth-infested financial cupboard that Rachel Notley’s merry bunch left in their woeful wake.

But hey, we are already borrowing $6 billion a year just to keep the lights on here in Wild Rose land, so how worse could it possibly get? Isn’t all the bad news already baked into this pitiful pie?

Well, the signs are it could be a lot worse than we’ve been told.

Last week, Kenney said we’re at least a billion bucks deeper into that bleeding red column than the Dippers let on because they massively overstated recent revenues – given how much those proceeds have dropped under their four years in power, that must have taken some doing.

What’s more, he reckons it is deliberate fudging of the numbers that is to blame, rather than simple incompetence – essentially they lied, according to Kenney. Not sure I’d agree with him there, mind. This was a government that thought ordinary folk needed help screwing in light bulbs, so heaven knows what financial acumen former treasurer Joe Ceci was bringing to the big provincial counting table.

Of course, this is often the route first travelled by any new political administration: throw everything, including the kitchen sink if its leaking, onto the debit side of the ledger and then happily place the blame squarely on the lot you just vanquished in a recent election.

But that extra billion does have an acrid smell, doesn’t it? So, if we are starting afresh but are already in the hole to the ongoing tune of $7 billion a year, then there need to be some very serious decisions taken soon under that big legislative dome in Edmonton.

The already dire situation is made worse by the current economy, which appears on the cusp of slipping back once again into recession as the rest of Canada merrily enjoys the best employment numbers in 40 years. It seems light years away that this province once boasted about the Alberta advantage.

For the fourth month in a row, the province’s economic activity index dropped in May when compared to 2018, while the number of oilrigs in service is also way down, as the jobless count seems stuck at a woeful 6.7 per cent.

During the election campaign, Kenney spoke about ring-fencing vital areas of government spending in health and education from cuts, but together those two categories suck up about three dollars of every five spent by the province so best of luck balancing the budget without touching those sacred cows.

Still, we did it once before so maybe Kenney can repeat that feat. Sequels, however, have a nasty habit of rarely matching the original.

Chris Nelson is a long-time journalist. His columns on Alberta politics run monthly in the St. Albert Gazette.





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