You will be forgiven if you didn’t notice her; I didn’t really notice her at first. But there she is, plastered all over the Alberta Budget 2015 website and news releases: a teacher, smiling broadly, working with a happy student.
The subtext is fascinating. The choice to put a smiling teacher and student on the front page of the communication efforts around the NDP’s first budget is not made haphazardly. If the subtext doesn’t reach you, then the text will. For the first time, as far as I can tell, this year’s budget begins with a statement of themes. The first theme: “Budget 2015 stabilizes funding for key public services to Albertans by reinvesting in health care, education and social services, in the context of a prudent, responsible and sustainable fiscal plan.”
With its first budget, the NDP government is clearly responding to messages heard on doorsteps in April, residents speaking up for all public services, but in particular public education. The government wants to reach out to teachers and parents with this budget.
Premier Rachel Notley continued the reach-out in question period the next day.
“The drop in the price of a barrel of oil should not be something that every teacher looks at every morning to find out if they have a job that day,” she said in response to a question from Wildrose leader Brian Jean on provincial debt.
Teachers should be happy with the budget. It offers a vast improvement over what was proposed by the previous government in March. But this budget will not address the systemic issues that plague public education as a result of six years of downward pressure on school board grants.
In order to do that, the government will have to invest much more into public education in the coming years. Unfortunately that is only achievable if the government continues to move toward a more responsible taxation system.
I use the word “responsible” purposefully. Responsibility indicates that there is a duty to live up to; it indicates that there is an accountability associated with upholding the responsibility.
All Albertans — and I am definitely including myself — have to appreciate the responsibility to pay for public education and other important public services and goods.
Some are going to criticize this budget for running a large deficit, but the truth is we have been living off an oil windfall instead of living up to our responsibilities to fund core services. This budget projects a $6.1 billion deficit, but it also shows that resource revenue is projected to be $6.1 billion less than last year. We have a deficit because we have been relying on oil revenue to fulfill our responsibilities as citizens, and now that revenue isn’t there.
Some will criticize this budget for raising taxes, but the truth is that, even after the hikes, Alberta has an irresponsibly low tax regime.
“With no provincial sales tax, no payroll tax, no health care premiums and the lowest provincial taxes on gasoline and diesel, Albertans across all income ranges generally pay the lowest overall taxes compared to other provinces,” states the budget document. “When the full impact of new tax measures is considered, Alberta’s tax advantage will be at least $8.5 billion.”
To reiterate, we could bump the tax regime to the rates used in B.C., still maintain the lowest tax rates in the country and have $8.5 billion more in government revenue. It is one thing to have a competitive tax advantage, but it is something else entirely to abandon reasonable and responsible taxation.
These are choices that a government must make based on the priorities emphasized by the electorate. Voters in the spring of 2015 clearly said that funding for core services was more important than an excessively low tax regime.
There is clearly more work to do on responsible taxation, and I hope the Notley government will continue to do that work for the sake of stability for our core public services. ❚
I welcome your comments—contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.