The budget news came down Tuesday and -- surprise! -- education got fucked. You weren't really surprised though, were you? Because this is Alberta, the land of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (or clinging to your parents') to put yourself through school. The province hits hard times and it stops investing in education (though at least this time there's an increase in healthcare, something I'll enjoy much more when I'm as geriatric as the bulk of the voters who turn out).
The damage? A drop in the Advanced Education and Technology budgeted program expenses by six per cent, an increase in the Education budget (which covers K-12 students) by 0.7 per cent, but no increase to the amount the government gives to the schools per student and a collective shrug to questions about how the schools will pay for mandated wage increases for teachers tied to Alberta's average weekly earnings index, around three per cent for next year.
By all accounts, the people of Alberta should be happy that at least through this minor economic valley, the government hasn't gone all Ralph Klein cut-happy and slashed spending to health and education. Regardless of the poo-pooing by the fiscal conservatives in the province, most vocally represented by the surging Wildrose Alliance party, government spending does some good and we do live in Canada, a country that values things like government spending on healthcare.
Accepting that there are valuable things the government does with its money, including assisting infrastructure-starved cities like Calgary, this short-term up-swing of the natural resource revenue yo-yo that has eased the potential budgetary headaches slightly should be looked at with more concern than jubilation.
"We see the province's ongoing dependency on nonrenewable resource revenues for program operating requirements remaining a serious concern," Geoff Pradella, vice-president of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, told the Calgary Herald in a Feb. 10 article.
Alberta, between 2005 and 2009, received on average 32.2 per cent of their total revenues from natural resources according to Statistics Canada data, more than twice the percentage of the next highest province, Saskatchewan, which averaged 14.4 per cent over the same period. In other words, our province is relying on commodities, which wildly fluctuate in price. The result is that when the economic dice rolls are coming out against us, our valuable programs suffer and take heavy cuts that often are never recovered.
It could be argued that the province's healthcare and post-secondary education systems never fully recovered from the damage done during the lean Klein years. These cuts are not just short-term belt tightening exercises, but have long-lasting ramifications to the capital in these systems.
The solution likely lies in adjusting our revenue pie so that a larger slice comes from more predictable sources, i.e. taxes. Alberta had the second lowest average amount of revenue collected from all taxes in the five-year period from 2005 to 2009, averaging just 44 per cent. Obviously this isn't a cure-all. Ontario collects a significant proportion of its revenue from taxes and has done its fair share of hack-and-slash work on its education and healthcare systems. But increasing reliance on a more stable area of the financial portfolio would help a lot towards avoiding the crack of the economic yo-yo when it nails us in the face every time the oil markets take a swoon.
Nobody wants to pay taxes, and premier Ed Stelmach and his gang even said there would be no new taxes to help with the deficit. No wonder -- if a large amount of taxes were implemented by the PCs, they would be replaced by the Wildrose Alliance faster than you could say election. There's nothing for us to do but accept that education is undervalued in this province and that, historically, it is always the first to the wall when the province inevitably hits hard times.