Blue Ribbon Panel Recommends Ending Alberta Advantage

Ralph Klein’s legacy is more than austerity followed by spending like tomorrow was never going to arrive. It’s more than paying down the debt thanks to increased corporate taxes and a return to the boom we promised not to squander away (again). No, Ralph Klein’s legacy was coining the term “the Alberta Advantage”. But what, exactly, was the Alberta Advantage? 

Honestly, a number of factors contributed to Alberta being the most advantageous province to live, work and play in. Alberta has some of the most stunning scenery; prairies with a sky that never ends and the Rocky Mountains jutting up from the ground as if reaching for heaven itself. There are acres of fields of golden wheat and purple flax, yellow canola and forests of the greenest greenery. The tourism industry will never really die because you can see aspects of every other province right here just by turning around – or they’re at least within reasonable driving distance. 

Alberta has the lowest taxes in the country and the cost of living is less than most other provinces. We have no sales tax, our progressive tax system doesn’t raise the 10% rate until you make over $128,145, and Alberta delivers the most bang for your tax dollars because of all the “perks”. 

Alberta doesn’t have a healthcare premium (but expect to get a bill if you need an air cast, or crutches, or an ambulance, or want your son circumcised). Alberta offers school choice, generously more well-funded than any other province. Alberta offers dental benefits to children and adults of low income families, an income top-up to low income seniors and reasonably-priced post-secondary education; at least, it has.  

Earlier this week, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney released the analysis of his “Blue Ribbon Panel”. The Panel, appointed in May to review Alberta’s spending, compared Alberta’s expenditures to that of three other provinces; British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, and found that Alberta spends more in areas of health, education, post-secondary and public services; without achieving better outcomes – maybe.

It certainly isn’t a threat to review spending. Comparing it to provinces with less benefits, however, was an overly simplistic view of the numbers without the details. Many of the comparisons were also in percentages, which, if you know anything about statistics is simply a lazy way of making a mountain out of a molehill. Percentages are evil. 

However. Albertans tend to use emergency rooms more than they should. A few years ago, Alberta Health Services (AHS) launched a campaign to try and help people figure out if they should be going to the emergency room or a doctor’s office. AHS established a nurseline – not for emergencies per se, but someone you could call and ask about health concerns without costing the government $150-$300 every fifteen minutes. They even got rid of the cumbersome 1-800 number to allow folks to actually remember the number (it’s 8-1-1).

The Alberta Government also allowed pharmacies to begin making some decisions when it came to drugs and refills; something that, assuredly, helped save some public dollars. But the problem still remains; Albertans use the emergency rooms more than they should and it costs – it might even end up costing you your local rural hospital. 

When it comes to K-12 education, Alberta has the most generous funding in the country. In addition to funding public, Catholic and Francophone boards and schools, the province also funds independent and private schools at 70%. It’s true, our generosity knows few bounds.

The Alberta government would save almost $500,000,000 each year by eliminating that funding – just shy of the $600,000,000 the Panel recommended.  

Post-secondary funding has always been generous here. The Alberta government covered around 70% of the cost of post-secondary education. It’s why Albertans didn’t have to take out a second mortgage to help their kids obtain an education like they do in the United States. $20,000 for a degree? $12,000 for a diploma? Apprenticeships that bordered on *free*?? It didn’t break the bank to get ahead in Alberta. 

And then there’s the public service. One of *the* best paying jobs with regular hours, a pension and job security. They are probably the largest employer of women in the province. But lots of people hate you and the work you do so there’s definitely a downside. 

These things have kept the province’s expenses high. Oil royalties and the highest incomes in the country kept the personal expenses low. According to the Blue Ribbon Panel, though, this has to change. 

The Panel was tasked with looking only at spending and they discovered that if Alberta spent as little as the next lowest province, British Columbia, Alberta could save $10 billion dollars a year. Considering Alberta’s annual deficit has been around $8 billion, that’s definitely something to consider – but it will come at a cost – to the Alberta Advantage. 

There is little to no expectation that the UCP government will cut special interest education funding – they actually campaigned on greater subsidies for alternative education. Health? Well, the over 55 crowd really, really likes to think of itself as Conservative and they will be the top expense for the province in healthcare costs. So where to cut?

Like Klein’s options, the UCP will most likely choose to affect the smaller voting blocks; people with developmental disabilities, income support, and special needs. The public service will be gutted in favour of not-for-profits and private delivery. Some people are veritably salivating at the thought. 

Do we need to make changes? Absolutely – one cannot expect top-notch services and benefits without paying for them. But focusing on the spending, as the Panel did, neglected the major benefits that Albertans have enjoyed without additional cost; and there are a lot of benefits. Does Alberta spend more? Absolutely. Albertans have also enjoyed better services than most of the comparable provinces.

This post contains fact and opinion and I’m feeling too lazy to link. But it’s all totally verifiable. Try me. 

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean

contact: [email protected], [email protected]

Twitter: @Mitchell_AB for all the commentary; @thisweekinAB for posts; @politicalRnD to guess “who tweeted that”?

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