Today was bound to be a letdown. After the high of crushing the Alberta government in court and gaining access to the media budget lockup (not to mention winning $2000 in costs) spending a whole day locked in a room full of journalists, civil servants and political hacks sifting through hundreds of pages of conservative ideology, charts and financial tables was going to suck. Especially as the Kenney government continues its steady four year grind of brutal austerity and class warfare. But given that I was locked up all day with no phone and a 232 page budget to pick through here's what I think you need to know about.
First off it’s a bit surreal being in the media budget lockup. You have journalists frantically flipping though huge volumes of paper trying to figure out just how high or low a certain random number is. You get technical briefings where you face a table full of very serious, highly paid people with massive staffs and fancy degrees who all, to a person, believe in trickle down economics. There is even an embargoed press conference with a guy who sat on the board of a Christian college that banned Dungeons and Dragons, yoga, and gay sex – yes, I’m talking about finance minister Travis Toews.
In a surprise appearance Sheila Gunn Reid of the Rebel was also there. Funnily enough when our lawyer got a list of the media participating in the media budget lockup from the government the Rebel was not on that list. Must have been a last minute, post-deadline, post legal disclosure addition.
But at its core the 2020 UCP budget, like all budgets, is an ideological document. And the UCP have the napkin tucked into their shirt and they’re digging into the trash can of ideology like it’s a sloppy lobster dinner. The government is sticking with its calamitous corporate tax cut and the trickle down economics enthusiasts in the Alberta government expect corporate tax revenue to increase by more than 22 per cent over the next three years all while the corporate income tax rate is reduced by 3 per cent over the same period. The budget also still references that Bev Dahlby paper that says that the corporate tax cut will somehow create 55,000 jobs (this is the trickle-down fantasy that university of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe famously endorsed). Though officially in the budget there are officially 1400 less jobs, expect that number to increase a lot over the summer.
There is an entire 12 page section of the budget called “A Fair Deal for Alberta” where the government launders proto-separatist talking points through its budget. You’ve heard them all before, Alberta being the great provider of Canada and so on and so forth. It’s half ginning up the anti-Ottawa cranks that make up the UCP base and half an attempt to get the federal government to cut Alberta a big cheque from the Fiscal Stabilization Program.
The words investment climate appear just as many times in this budget as climate change. Of those three references to climate change one is a reference to a federal government department with climate change in its title, the other a reference to a UN conference. Here is the only actual reference to climate change in the entire budget.
“Alberta is taking the bold steps needed to leverage the technology, talent, pragmatic expertise and creative ideas found here that will bring real and practical solutions to complex global challenges like climate change, food security, and economic prosperity. Alberta’s job creators are creating solutions for the world, and government will support and recognize these efforts.”
When Kenney and his cronies talk about job creators it's very likely they're referring to the people featured on page 179 of the budget titled "Who Pays Alberta's Taxes." It's an entire page with three separate charts that show just how much the top 10 per cent of income tax earners pay in income taxes. Apparently we should all be very grateful that Alberta’s richest people pay so much in taxes especially when the poors pay so little. But it’s a dramatically unsurprising fact when you consider the sheer density of rich people in Alberta, the incredible inequality in this province and the progressive income tax regime the Alberta NDP brought in. Remember folks, eat the rich.
But I’m not here to tell you that the deficit is higher or lower this year or that the provincial debt in 2023 will be so many billion dollars. You can get that coverage from a variety of sources. Capital J journalists love that shit. The biggest things about this budget are the things that weren’t in it: the coronavirus and its effect on the global economy, Jason Kenney’s plans to directly invest in oil and gas, oncoming labour strife, the growing movement of investors backing away from high-carbon investments, and Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockades. Those things are all going to have more of an effect on Alberta’s economy in the short and medium term than this very hopeful plan than they’ve constructed.
And it is an incredibly hopeful document. I wish everyone was as optimistic as Alberta government budget forecasters. Oil prices are forecast to be high. Full employment (which is really just 5 per cent unemployment) will be achieved in 2022-2023 which is far higher than private forecaster estimates. Income tax revenue (both personal and corporate) is set to increase dramatically. This is all against a backdrop of Kenney saying in a post Teck mine cancellation press conference that corporate CEOs and random rich dudes are personally calling him up to tell him that they’re cancelling investments because of an unsatisfactory federal regulatory regime and lawless Wet’suwet’en blockaders.
The UCP have only been in power for 10 months and this is already their second budget. The timeline on this year's budget is pretty early in the year, a relatively convenient way to dodge the incoming bad news. And up on the tenth floor of the Federal Building (only a few steps away from the infamous Sky Palace) it’s easy to forget the harm what this budget will do to real people. As workers are laid off or forced to take pay cuts, as doctors and nurses pack up and leave the province, as the poor and marginalized are cruelly dealt with by the UCP government Alberta becomes a smaller, worse, meaner place. Frankly it’s quite hard to just sit in a room and just document it and not just go full Network.
It’s easy for Kenney to bully municipal governments or school boards or Justin Trudeau but this budget deals with Alberta in the wider world and the wider world is refusing to bend to Kenney’s will. Regardless of how sharp the pencils are at Treasury Board and Finance the Wet’suwet’en solidarity blockaders will continue to throw a wrench into our national transportation system until Indigenous solidarity is respected. Regardless of how many stump speeches Kenney gives on his discredited conspiracy theory on how the Rockefellers are apparently sabotaging Alberta’s economy global capital is shying from investing in Alberta’s particular brand of high carbon oil. Regardless of how much Kenney cuts corporate taxes trickle down economics is still just a scheme to make the rich even richer at the expense of everyone else.
Things are going to get worse before they get better with this government but we must continue doing the work. And that’s my promise to you as the executive director of Progress Alberta, that we will continue to do whatever we can to fight this government. To document and expose its brutality and corruption. And a beautiful thing happened as I left the lockup and walked back to the office to file this story. I walked past thousands of people streaming to the legislature, families with signs, students, teachers in red, chanting and singing and walking together with purpose. It was a hell of a palate cleanser. Let's see more of that.
RANDOM NOTES FROM THE LOCKUP THAT DIDN’T MAKE IT INTO THE STORY
- The Alberta government is expecting oil production to increase by 170,000 barrels per day in 2020
- The Alberta government is expecting $1.5 billion worth of total oil and gas investment in 2020
- Rick Dolphin attended the lockup for the Western Standard
- Thanks to the government’s very rosy projections and downloading of obligations onto municipalities and school boards the total Alberta debt is forecast to be $88 billion in 2022-2023
- The education budget is $8.322 billion
- The health budget is $20.6 billion, of that AHS gets $15.4 billion
- Alberta leaves $1.5 billion on the table by taxing small business at 2 per cent as opposed to the usual corporate income tax rate
- On page 117 of the budget is an acknowledgement that forecasting corporate tax revenue is tricky, because corporations are tricky. “However, it can be difficult to predict how forecast net corporate operating surplus translates to corporate income tax revenue. Taxable income can differ significantly from corporate profits, due tax changes or discretionary deductions such as depreciation or prior-year losses which can be carried forward or back and affect corporate income tax revenue for years.”
- The Alberta government expects there to be $15 million in delinquent corporate taxes this year
- The Orphan Well Association will collect only $69 million this year. It also looks like the government will examine lending the Orphan Well Association more money. "The government will examine increasing the loan, and extending the repayment period, to the Orphan Well Association by up to $100 million to further the cleanup of orphaned oil and gas wells in Alberta.”
- As I have more time I will dig into the healthcare and education budgets but the chatter around the room wasn’t good