GUNTER: Health care, education dominate UCP semi-wild spending budget

GUNTER: Health care, education dominate UCP semi-wild spending budget

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If you want a sense for just how much the UCP government intends to do in the coming year, consider that the Alberta government will spend $15,621 for every man, woman and child in the province.

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If you have a family of four, that means the Smith government intends to spend more than $62,000 on your behalf on hospitals, health care, grade schools, universities and colleges, highways, parks, courts, jails and so on.

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That’s more money than any other province is spending per resident, with the possible exception of Newfoundland and Labrador.

If you adjust for inflation and population growth, spending in the last provincial NDP budget just four years ago was the equivalent of $14,700 per capita in today’s dollars.

That means in real terms, the spending outlined by UCP Finance Minister Travis Toews on Tuesday is 6.2 per cent higher than even the last Notley budget.

Toews’ plan is not as foolhardy as that last Dipper budget. The NDP were spending as if they had the UCP’s revenues when they definitely did not. The last Notley budget had a $12-billion deficit.

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As I mentioned in yesterday’s column, the recent Smith government budget contains a debt repayment of $13 billion, an operating surplus of nearly $2.4 billion, a formula for restarting investment in the Heritage Trust Fund and a commitment to bring back the balanced budget law.

The UCP are really (really) fortunate to have a solid world oil price that beefs up their revenues. In the coming year, oil and gas royalties will be three times higher than they were in the NDP’s last year.

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Since the UCP has no control over that, they are lucky as much as they are sound fiscal managers.

Yet they can take credit for not going wild with spending; just semi-wild. They’re not spending like drunken sailors, just well-lubricated sailors.

Before his tragic death in an airplane crash, then-Premier Jim Prentice told me he thought Albertans were fiscal conservatives “to a point.” They would tolerate whatever level of spending provincial revenues permitted. What they didn’t like was governments spending more than they could afford.

I think he was right. We Albertans are OK with a lot of government — a lot of spending on health care and education and all kinds of services. We just don’t like politicians going into the red to pay for it.

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That’s why Toews budget will be popular. The province can currently afford it. And that’s why the NDP’s budgets were seen as irresponsible. When they were spending like a UCP government, the revenues just weren’t there.

But just what are Albertans getting for their $68 billion ($65.8 billion, if we take out the interest payments on the provincial debt)?

Health-care spending will be nearly $27 billion in the coming year. That’s 41 per cent of all spending in the province’s operating budget. That makes the provincial government essentially a health-care service that does some other stuff, too.

Please, I don’t want to hear anyone — UCP, NDP, professors or lobbyists — claiming we don’t spend enough money on health care. Because bureaucrats run the whole system, billions are wasted that should be spent better, but there is no shortage of money.

Education and post-secondary education account for $16 billion, or 24 per cent.

Together, education and health alone make up two-thirds of the budget.

Social services are 13 per cent of total spending. Leaving just 22 per cent — less than a quarter — for all the other provincial services.

And what’s the biggest single expense in all those departments? Pay for public-sector workers.

Salaries and benefits for nurses, teachers, civil servants and other public workers make up just over 43 per cent of all provincial spending.

That’s 43 per cent of the most generous budget in the country, too.

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