Opinion | The first cut is the deepest: UCP's debut budget aims for public sector

It might not be the scorched-earth budget the NDP warned us was coming. But there’s definitely lots of smoke in the air.

There is nothing accidental about the budget. But there are some numbers that might strike you as odd

Finance Minister Travis Toews announced the UCP Government's first budget on Thursday. (Marie Chabot-Johnson/Radio-Canada)

It might not be the scorched-earth budget the NDP warned us was coming. But there's definitely lots of smoke in the air.

So much smoke, in fact, that it's difficult to see a coherent picture of what it all means.

As far as Alberta's United Conservative government is concerned, its first ever provincial budget is something of a controlled burn designed to clear out the deadwood and allow a forest to grow.

But small fires can grow into out-of-control conflagrations — and that's just what critics are predicting.

This is a budget unlike any the province has seen in a generation — one that makes significant cuts to program spending.

Perhaps not the devastating 20 per cent cut the NDP was predicting but neither is it the benign 2.8-per-cent reduction in spending over four years the government is talking about.

The government makes it sound like there's a modest cut to spending across the board. That's not how it works. The two big departments of health and education — accounting for almost 60 per cent of the expenses in a $48 billion budget — avoid any cuts. Education will see a freeze; health will get a one per cent hike.

Premier Jason Kenney discussed the spending cuts coming in Thursday's budget during a televised address on Wednesday. (Facebook )

It's the myriad of other departments that will see deep cuts.

Agriculture, for example, will endure a cut of nine per cent — or $88 million — this year.

Post-secondary education is being trimmed by five per cent, or $275 million.

Funding to municipal governments under the Municipal Sustainability Initiative will be reduced by $236 million over two years.

The reductions quickly start to add up, and nowhere is the math being studied more intently than among Alberta's public sector workers. They'll be wondering if they're facing death by a thousand cuts.

The government plans to trim the public sector by 7.7 per cent over four years to save $550 million, "mainly through attrition" but also "coupled with restraint in the broader public sector."

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, reacts to the 2019 Alberta budget on Thursday. (Scott Neufeld/CBC)

It's all a bit vague. Budget documents point to a loss of about 800 "full time equivalent" positions but Finance Minister Travis Toews refused to be pinned down by reporters to a specific number of jobs.

Promise fulfilled

Despite signs of more cuts to come, Toews sees the budget as an election promise fulfilled. 

"It's certainly an exciting day for myself and this ministry," he told reporters Thursday. "I believe it's a good day for Alberta."

"Good" is a relative term when it comes to budgets, especially budgets that cut.

"It's tough medicine, but it's much-needed medicine," said Richard Truscott, vice-president of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business in Alberta.

UCP supporters will be applauding the budget. But one person's medicine is another's poison.

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, sees the budget as another shot by the government in a looming labour war.

"Our members are ready to take action," said Smith. "We have 23,000 members in direct government services, if you take 800 of them away when they're already stretched to the limit, that's massive."

The government is not stumbling into a labour strife; it's purposefully striding in.

There is nothing accidental about this budget. But there are some numbers that might strike you as odd.

For a government that pilloried the NDP for being on track to run a debt of $97 billion in three years, the UCP is on a similar road to run the debt up to $93 billion.

How can this be?

This, too, is not accidental.

Kenney has ensured the government is facing something of a fiscal crisis by ending the carbon tax, scrapping contracts for oil-by-rail, and reducing the corporate tax rate. In total, this will cost the provincial treasury $21.5 billion in forfeited revenue.

If Alberta didn't have a revenue problem before, it does now.

Since Kenney refuses to contemplate any increase in taxes (other than the usual hike to tobacco taxes and increases in fees for things such as registering land titles), the only thing he can do is cut.

And, blame Ottawa, of course.

In a televised pre-budget address to the province Wednesday night, Kenney blamed the Liberal government for Alberta's troubles saying it had "actively campaigned against our province's vital economic interests" and thus it was up to the UCP to unilaterally "put our own house in order."

No mention of the fact the Liberals bought the Trans Mountain pipeline for $4.5 billion and Prime Minister Trudeau this week vowed in a post-election speech to get the pipeline expansion project built.

But a Liberal government riding to Alberta's rescue doesn't fit this budget's narrative.

This is a budget where the province is on fire — and only Kenney can extinguish the flames.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.  


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.