Prentice’s foggy fiscal policies

The following OpEd was published in the Calgary Sun

If the pollsters are right (and the last election showed they’re not always) Jim Prentice will be elected PC leader and premier of Alberta. However, thus far his public pronouncements on fiscal policy have been as clear as mud. Some digging into these details and clarification from Prentice himself are seemingly warranted.

Prentice has made four significant promises so far as it relates to how he intends to spend your money: 1) No more entitlements, 2) A return to clear and transparent accounting for the province’s budget, 3) Cap the provincial debt, and 4) Did I mention no more entitlements?

Let’s start with number one, ‘No more entitlements’. Mr. Prentice has made a few specific promises here, like no more sole-sourced contracts and overpaid political staffers. This is a great start, but for a few hiccups. Much of the brainpower behind Mr. Prentice’s campaign hails from Navigator Ltd – a public relations firm – which Mr. Prentice hired to do a good deal of work for him when he was a federal minister. Navigator Ltd. also happens to be under investigation from the Auditor General right now for sole-sourced contracts from former premier Alison Redford.

Alberta politics is a small world.

After fighting the government tooth and nail, Alison Redford agreed to open the books on MLA expenses to the public. After her South Africa junket, she might regret that decision, but it was nonetheless the right thing to do.

In May 2010, Jim Prentice was quoted in the Calgary Sun opposing the public disclosure of MP expenses, or even allowing the Auditor General to look at them. He preferred instead that they be kept secret and just reviewed by other MPs sitting on the Board of Internal Economy.

Since 2010, Mike Duffy and Alison Redford made clear why we need both the public disclosure of politicians’ expenses, and the need for the Auditor General to investigate them. This isn’t to say that Mr. Prentice has any foul expense claims of his own, but it does put him on the wrong side of the transparency argument, and at odds with his own campaign commitment to ‘No more entitlements.’

Promise number two: A return to clear and transparent accounting for the province’s budget. The Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) has crusaded against Finance Minister Doug Horner’s funny-money budgetary accounting for nearly two years now, which allowed the PC’s to take billions in capital spending off of the books and claim that they were running a surplus, when in fact they were spending billions more than they were collecting in revenue. Horner insisted that the CTF was intentionally misleading the public when we checked his math and produced a single, consolidated deficit number for Albertans to chew on.

Fast forward to June 2014. Jim Prentice has promised to bring back a single, consolidated deficit number with no funny business. Doug Horner managed to change his tune, “If you want to get rid of the confusion and you just want to have one number, fine, let’s just have one number.” Maybe he just didn’t like the CTF’s tone, but hey, a win is a win.

Prentice is onto something here, and Horner must know it. Albertans don’t believe the government’s math anymore, and neither does the Auditor General.

Prentice has yet to reveal how he will do the math on this new consolidated deficit number, and we may not know until he brings down his first budget as premier. Nonetheless, it’s a positive promise that we will hold him to.

Promise number three: ‘Cap the debt.’ Prentice’s promise to cap Alberta’s debt is both wrong and vague. Alberta doesn’t need to ‘cap’ its debt. Alberta needs to ‘stop’ taking on more debt, and then ‘eliminate’ it.

Alberta’s debt stands at $9.4 billion right now and will grow to $21 billion by 2016, eating up $1.4 billion in interest payments annually.

Prentice’s promise to ‘cap’ the debt still involves growing the debt, but eventually putting a lid on it, at some point, which will be discussed later.

As the man himself said, “The numbers that I have seen on the existing infrastructure plan are in the vicinity of $20 billion, but until I’m at the table, and can scrutinize it and prioritize the plan, I don’t know if that will be the number or not.”

Bold words.

We also don’t know at what point he would put a ceiling on the debt. It makes no difference, because debt ceilings (or caps) are worthless promises to limit how much we stick it to the next generation. The U.S. Congress has raised its own debt ceiling 12 times over the last 12 years. Like Pringles, once you pop, you can’t stop.

Jim Prentice’s campaign looks suspiciously like those of former PC leadership frontrunners Jim Dinning and Gary Mar; risk averse, full of vague commitments and carefully scripted talking points intended to please everyone. Mr. Prentice is still a bet worth mortgaging your house to win the PC leadership and he may well turn out to be a decent premier, but Albertans deserve more than opaque platitudes. They deserve solid commitments based upon deeply held principles that should be at the root of public service. Mr. Prentice should put some meat on the bones of his promises to give substance to those willing to take a bite.

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