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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—government budgets in 2024

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The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—government budgets in 2024

This fiscal year, most provinces (and the federal government) demonstrated irresponsible fiscal management, although some were better than others. Therefore, in the words of the 1966 film starring Clint Eastwood, let’s discuss The Good, the Bad and the Ugly of Canadian government budgets in 2024.

Falling in the “good” category are Alberta and New Brunswick—the only two provinces planning to run a balanced budget in 2024/25, with Alberta forecasting a $367 million surplus and New Brunswick forecasting a $41 million surplus. Both provinces forecast surpluses until at least 2026/27, and expect net debt (total debt minus financial assets) as a share of the economy to decline in the years to come. However, what keeps these provinces from having a great budget is that both chose to further increase spending in the face of higher revenues, while failing to deliver much-needed tax relief.

Alberta in particular remains at risk of seeing future surpluses disappear, as the province relies on historically high resource revenues to fund its high spending. Should these volatile revenues decline, the province would return to operating at a deficit and growing its debt burden.

Provinces in the “bad” category include, but aren’t limited to, Saskatchewan and Newfoundland and Labrador. Largely due to quick growth in program spending that wipes out any revenue gains, both provinces expect deficits in 2023/24 and 2024/25 before planning to balance their budgets in 2025/26. The risks of unchecked spending growth are most salient in Saskatchewan, where just one year ago the province projected surpluses in both 2023/24 and 2024/25. And resulting from many years of deficits and debt accumulation, debt interest costs in Newfoundland and Labrador are expected to reach $2,123 per person in 2024/25, the highest in Canada.

Key governments among the “ugly” are the federal government, Ontario and British Columbia. Let’s take them one by one.

The federal government delivered a budget that continues the same failed approach that’s produced nearly a decade of stagnation in Canadian living standards. The Trudeau government plans to run a $39.8 billion deficit in 2024/25, followed by deficits of $20.0 billion or higher until at least 2028/29. Prior to the budget, research showed the federal government could balance its budget in two years by slowing spending growth, yet instead the government doubled down and increased spending well past its previous estimates (against the wishes of Canadians).

In addition to continuous spending increases and debt accumulation, the Trudeau government increased capital gains taxes on all businesses and many Canadians. Presented as a way to make the tax system more “fair” while generating $20 billion in revenue, in reality it is a harmful tax increase that is unlikely to generate the planned amount of revenues while simultaneously hindering economic growth and prosperity.

Similar to the federal government, in its 2024 budget Ontario’s Ford government simply doubled down on the same approach it’s taken in previous years. This “stay the course” fiscal plan added an average of $3.8 billion in new annual program spending (compared to last year’s budget) over the three years from 2023/24 to 2025/26. This new spending delays the province’s expected return to surpluses until 2026/27, and rather than run a $200 million surplus in 2024/25 the Ford government now plans to run a $9.8 billion deficit.

Importantly, the Ford government failed to deliver any meaningful tax relief for Ontarians in this budget, which once again breaks its promise to reduce personal income tax rates. Given that Ontarians face some of the highest personal income tax rates in North America, relief would help keep money in people’s pockets while also promoting economic growth.

Finally, the Eby government in B.C. tabled a budget that can be best described as a generational error in terms of the planned debt accumulation. The government plans to run a $7.9 billion deficit in 2024/25, followed by deficits of $7.8 billion and $6.4 billion in 2025/26 and 2026/27, respectively. In other words, the Eby government plans to run deficits in the coming years that are nearly as large or larger than those expected in Ontario, despite B.C. having a little over one-third of Ontario’s population.

Runaway spending drives these deficits and will contribute to a $55.1 billion (74.7 per cent) increase in provincial net debt from 2023/24 to 2026/27. This massive runup in debt will result in higher debt interest costs, which leaves less money available for services such as healthcare and education, or pro-growth tax relief for British Columbians.

By and large, governments across Canada demonstrated an irresponsible approach to managing public finances in this year’s round of budgets. While there were a couple of bright spots, the majority of provinces instead chose to increase spending, grow deficits and debt, and introduce little to no meaningful tax relief.

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