Alberta's budget: You've heard the spin, now take a look at the real numbers

The budget is complicated enough on its own, let alone with multiple layers of political spin piled on top. So we've boiled down the key numbers for you.

We're racking up debt — but owe the least of any province — and still depend heavily on oil and gas

Finance Minister Joe Ceci, left, and finance critic Drew Barnes, right, have offered different takes on Alberta's budget situation. (Side images: CBC; centre image: John Robertson)

This was originally published March 12.

Calling it his happiest moment since becoming finance minister, Joe Ceci recently informed Albertans that their province should wrap up the fiscal year at the end of this month with a $9.1-billion deficit.

That's not something you would normally expect a finance minister to be particularly cheerful about but, as Ceci explained in his third-quarter fiscal update, it's $1.4 billion less than originally forecast last spring.

"So that's really good news," he said, in an interview on the Calgary Eyeopener.

This, of course, is the government's optimistic view of the situation. The opposition's take has been predictably more dire.

The partisan bickering is part of our democratic process, but it can leave you, the voter, in an awkward spot. The budget numbers are complicated enough on their own, let alone with multiple layers of political spin piled on top.

But an objective look at the data — and the context surrounding it — reveals a few key things. Alberta is indeed racking up debt at a rapid rate, but we've run larger deficits in the past. Our net financial position continues to slide, but we remain the least indebted province in the country. And we're still heavily dependent on oil and gas royalties to have any hope of balancing the books.

Whether the latest financial figures amount to "good news," as the government says, or a catastrophe, as the opposition suggests, is a matter of opinion. There are different ways to look at the same data.

But the numbers are the numbers. So, as an antidote to the spin, we've distilled some of the key ones into a few interactive graphs, which you'll find below. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Let's start with the deficit.

The deficit is big, but it has been bigger

When we talk about deficits in the billions of dollars, it's hard to conceptualize. What does a billion dollars look like? What does it mean to a province of our size?

An effective way to understand that is to look at the deficit as a percentage of total economic activity, or gross domestic product (GDP). This puts the number in context of the overall economy and makes for better comparisons to the past, as well as between provinces.

RBC Economics regularly compiles a handy document that pulls together data from provincial budgets and calculates things in terms of GDP.

We've converted those numbers into the following graph, which shows you the budget history for each province and the federal government over the past few decades.

Negative values (in red) represent annual deficits, while positive values (in blue) represent surpluses. Tap on the bars or run your mouse over them to see more detailed information. And use the drop-down menu to switch between provinces.

(Click here if the graph isn't displaying on your device.)

As you can see, our deficit works out to about 3.1 per cent of GDP — the largest among all the provinces and the federal government for the current fiscal year.

That's a hefty amount, to be sure. It's among the larger deficits Alberta has ever run. But it's not unprecedented. The 1986, 1991, 1992 and 2016 budgets involved more borrowing, as a share of the total economy at the time.

Of course, all those deficits add up.

They become our accumulated debt — something Alberta used to be alone in not having.

Net debt and what it means

How bad is is our debt situation? Again, it helps to consider it in terms of the overall economy.

The graph below depicts net debt as a percentage of GDP. Net debt is calculated by subtracting what the province owes from its financial assets, which include the Heritage Fund, contingency accounts and money it has socked away in various other places.

The first thing you'll see is how Alberta has recently shifted to the negative side of the scale.

You'll also notice all the white space at the bottom of the graph. That's because Alberta's debt remains relatively low compared to that of other provinces, and the federal government.

Change the jurisdiction to see just how far down the red bars reach.

(Click here if the graph isn't displaying on your device.)

Another takeaway is that Alberta's financial position has been sliding generally downward for roughly the past decade. Since 2008, the province has, for the most part, been spending more money than it's been taking in. But the past couple of years, in particular, have pushed us most heavily into the red.

At the same time, any other province would gladly trade places with us.

Even with all our recent borrowing, our net debt represents only about 6.5 per cent of our economy, compared with about 15 per cent in neighbouring B.C. and Saskatchewan and a staggering 45 per cent in Quebec.

But, as bad as it is in La Belle Province, you'll notice they're on an upward trajectory. A string of small surpluses has helped Quebec pay down its burdensome debt in recent years.

Alberta's trajectory, on the other hand, is headed in the opposite direction.

Forecasting future debt

What lies in store for Alberta's finances has perhaps been the source of the heaviest-duty political spin. It's easy, after all, to make claims about things that have yet to happen.

No one can predict the future, of course, but there are some forecasts out there that are more plausible than others.

One recent claim came from United Conservative Party finance critic Drew Barnes, who tweeted that Alberta would reach Quebec's level of indebtedness, on a per-person basis, by the year 2023 and Ontario's by 2024.

The tweet cited a newspaper column but it's unclear where, exactly, the forecast came from. Others who have done detailed analysis of Alberta's growing debt have come up with numbers that are nowhere close.

Among them are researchers with the Fraser Institute who wrote a recent report that raises concerns about Alberta's borrowing. They forecast debt levels that continue to grow but remain significantly lower than Ontario or Quebec's.

When considered on a per-capita basis, their estimates suggest Alberta's net debt would hit about $13,000 by 2023. Ontario and Quebec currently sit at about $22,000 per per person.

To visualize that, take a look at the next graph. It outlines the Alberta projections from that report and compares them with the eastern provinces' debt loads.

(Click here if the graph isn't displaying on your device.)

The chart may contradict the specific numbers that Barnes put out there, but it also highlights his party's general point about how quickly our province is plunging into the red.

Just take a look at the slope of the red line to see how quickly every man, woman and child's share of provincial borrowing continues to grow.

It's a steep descent from a previously enviable financial position.

And, as you'll see in one final graph below, it mirrors a slide in resource revenue.

The resource roller-coaster

It's well known that Alberta relies on oil and gas revenues. Booms and busts have been a way of life for our province, as have corresponding surpluses and deficits.

Not too long ago, royalties and other direct income from fossil fuel extraction consistently made up 30 to 40 per cent of the government's total revenues.

But that haul plunged to a historic low of just 6.5 per cent in 2015, and things have only just started to recover.

(Click here if the graph isn't displaying on your device.)

In dollar terms, the province will take in about $10 billion less from oil and gas this year than it did at its peak, in 2005.

That's a tough hand to be dealt as a government. As busts go, this one has been especially hard on the provincial treasury.

Alberta's NDP has long championed diversifying the province's economy, though, so you might think they'd be more resilient to these types of swings. But it's been nearly three years since they were elected, and economists have yet to see much change when it comes to the government's reliance on resource revenue.

Ron Kneebone with the University of Calgary's School of Public Policy said he was optimistic when the NDP won power in 2015, but his hope soon faded that the new government would actually get Alberta off the royalty roller-coaster.

"I thought we were past that," he said. "We shouldn't be balancing the budget on the basis of oil and gas."

And yet, this seems to remain the Alberta way.

No Alberta government — of any stripe — has run a surplus without relying on oil and gas money in the past half-century. Remove the resource revenue and every single budget would be in a deficit position.

And the future looks like more of the same.

​"We are as reliant now as ever on royalty revenue to balance the books," said University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe.

The 2018/19 budget is due to be released later this month and another deficit looks certain. The finance minister has promised a return to a small surplus by 2023/24. But that's unlikely to happen unless oil and gas bounces back as much as the government expects.

So keep watching that price of crude. We're all depending on it.

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Robson Fletcher

Data Journalist

Robson Fletcher's work for CBC Calgary focuses on data, analysis and investigative journalism. He joined CBC in 2015 after spending the previous decade working as a reporter and editor at newspapers in Alberta, British Columbia and Manitoba.

With files from Brooks DeCillia


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