Fraser Forum

Alberta government must further restrain spending to stabilize provincial finances

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Alberta government must further restrain spending to stabilize provincial finances

Despite recording a $4.3 billion surplus last year, Premier Danielle Smith remains committed to a new approach to Alberta finances that relies less heavily on resource revenue, which includes restraining spending levels below the rate of inflation and population growth. That’s a big step forward, but is it enough to stabilize Alberta’s boom and bust rollercoaster?

First, some background.

After nearly a decade and a half of routine budget deficits, Alberta swung to a budget surplus when resource revenue (which includes includes oil and gas royalties) skyrocketed from $3.1 billion in 2020/21 to $16.2 billion in 2021/22. In 2022/23, the government enjoyed the highest level of resource revenue on record and relatively high levels have continued in recent years. Correspondingly, Alberta’s surpluses have continued.

Alberta governments have a habit of increasing spending during times of high resource revenue, such as the province is currently experiencing, to levels that are unsustainable without incurring deficits when resource revenue inevitably declines. That’s why the Smith government’s commitment to spending restraint is an important one.

Unfortunately, however, due to the Smith government’s spending increases in previous years, this restraint won’t go as far in stabilizing provincial finances. Moreover, there are a number of limitations and exceptions to these new spending rules that may impede their effectiveness.

Consider that this year, program spending will reach a projected $14,334 per Albertan, which is $1,603 more per person (inflation-adjusted) than the Smith government originally planned to spend this year as outlined in the 2022 mid-year budget update.

Figure 1

As shown above, program spending (inflation-adjusted) will reach a projected $14,041 per person in 2025/26 and a projected $13,750 per person in 2026/27, which is equivalent to per-person increases of $1,571 and $1,538, respectively, compared to the original plan in 2022.

So while per-person (inflation-adjusted) spending is set to decline, which aligns with the Smith government’s commitment, this restraint is starting from a higher base level due to spending decisions thus far. That means more work needs to be done to rein in spending.

Indeed, for perspective, if the Smith government had simply stuck to its original plan, spending would be closely aligned with stable, more predictable sources of revenue. And ultimately, that’s the way to avoid deficits.

There’s also several limitations and exceptions for the government’s new spending rule. For example, the spending limit applies only to “operating expense,” which does not include longer-term spending, disaster and emergency assistance, spending related to dedicated revenue, or contingencies. As a result of various limits and exceptions, total program spending growth in 2023/24 exceeds inflation and population growth by 1.8 percentage points. Put simply, these limitations and exceptions add to the risk of budget deficits.

Sustainable finances have been impeded by increases in per person spending since 2022. So while the Smith government deserves credit for its commitment to restrain spending moving forward, Alberta’s fiscal challenges aren’t over.

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