Nary a conservative budget in sight

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Appeared in the Financial Post
Sitting down with my morning cup of coffee and Saturday's National Post, I was delighted to read Andrew Coyne's scathing criticism of the federal Conservatives' record in office, based on comments he was to make at this year's Manning Networking Conference (Is there a conservative in the House?, March 10).

Where has conservatism gone? Coyne asked. Unfortunately, Post readers didn't have to look far for the answer - the adjacent page to be precise.

There we read that B.C. Premier Christy Clark, who also spoke at the conference, was introduced with glowing praise as having delivered the most conservative provincial budget in the country. This noteworthy praise originally came from Gary Mason of The Globe and Mail, who appropriately finished his sentence with at the moment.

You see, to date only two provincial budgets have been delivered, Alberta's and British Columbia's. Neither deserves a conservative label.

Alberta's first budget under Premier Alison Redford embraced the province's recent deficit tradition. Alberta is now in its fourth deficit year and Ms. Redford's government proposes to continue running deficits for another three years.

Worse still, Ms. Redford's government is pinning its hopes of growing its way out of the deficit on rosy revenue growth forecasts averaging 8.4% over the next three years. With that sort of dough expected, Alberta's Finance Minister repeatedly trumpeted how the budget contained no tax increases - five times in a short speech, to be exact. That claim, however, came with a huge asterisk that the government wants to have a discussion on taxes (read increase taxes), likely after an election this spring.

On the spending side, Ms. Redford's government proposes to hold program spending growth to an average rate of 3.3%, assuring us that they will be disciplined enough to spend no more. Forgive me for being skeptical. In last year's budget, they promised to hold spending growth to 1.9%, but then nearly doubled the growth in spending to 3.6%.

Over in B.C., Premier Clark's first budget was hardly better. After four consecutive years of budget deficits totalling $5.6-billion, Ms. Clark's government is finally planning to return to a surplus position in 2013-14.

To balance the books, the B.C. government is relying on a host of new tax increases, including a reduction in the amount of income British Columbians can earn tax free, increased Medical Services Plan premiums, reneging on an earlier promise to eliminate the small business tax rate, higher tobacco taxes, and a provisional one-percentage point increase to the general corporate income tax rate in 2014-15.

The tax increases in the budget are partly to help pay for several new boutique tax credits targeted at particular individuals and businesses. Perhaps that's what made the budget conserva-tive. These gimmicky credits mirror those implemented by the federal Conservatives in recent years.

The most troubling aspect of the B.C. budget, however, was the alarming increase in government debt. Mainly as a result of increased capital expenditures, the B.C. government's debt will expand by 30% over the next three years to $66billion. As a percentage of the province's economy (GDP), the provincial debt will increase from a low of 18% in 2007-08 to 28% by 2014-15 - approximately the same debt level the Liberals inherited from the previous NDP government back in 2001.

Because of this dramatic increase in debt, a larger portion of provincial revenues will be devoted to interest payments instead of funding important public programs or improving the competitiveness of B.C.'s tax regime. Not to mention the added debt will be a drag on B.C.'s economy and an unfair burden on the next generation of B.C. families who will be responsible for repayment.

With increased spending, higher taxes and expanding debt, it's nonsense to call this the most conservative provincial budget in the country.

For examples of truly conservative budgets, one needs to look back to the 1990s, when governments across the country of all political ideologies - NDP, Liberal and Conservative - enacted spending reductions to achieve balanced budgets.

Such actions, while difficult in the short term, lead to better results in the medium and long term, including balanced budgets, declining debt, lower interest costs, tax relief and a more prosperous economy. Indeed, Canada's remarkable fiscal transformation (federally and provincially) contributed significantly to our outstanding economic performance from 1997 to 2007.

With eight provinces and the federal government yet to deliver 2012 budgets, let's hope they apply the lessons of the 1990s, rather than produce similar budgets to Alberta and B.C.

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