The UCP debt-killing plan now taking shape is quite simple, on paper.
Freeze spending for health care and K-12 education. In every other area, cut or reorganize both government and funded institutions to save $600 million a year, for four straight years.
And it will come to pass that the budget will be balanced by 2022-23, they say. In 20 more years after that, the debt will be zero.
The plan, like the leopard in the zoo, is elegant in captivity, but let it loose and things get complicated in a hurry.
The government has already been working with these recommendations for more than two weeks. Many will be the core of the October budget.
There is no softening I can detect in Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP caucus. The only problem some have with the report, in fact, is they don’t think it goes far enough.
Never has a government worked so hard to convince Albertans there’s an immediate crisis. Finance Minister Travis Toews pounded home the message in a Chamber of Commerce speech Wednesday.
He used a slide deck showing that in virtually every area, the government spends more than other provinces and pays workers more, but gets results that are no better or often worse.
If Alberta spent at the same level as the average of Ontario, B.C. and Quebec, Toews repeated, the annual saving would be $10.4 billion and there would be no deficit.
Kenney will keep his promise to freeze (not cut) spending in health and K-12 education, says his communications boss, Katy Merrifield.
And, by implication, that means everywhere else, look out.
The biggest overall target is public sector compensation. The UCP clearly feels that public pay must freeze or drop to national levels, even as the number of public servants decreases.
Pay for doctors, nurses and teachers would decline, even as operating spending for the health and K-12 systems is frozen.
The most obvious target for actual operating cuts is advanced education, an area not covered by Kenney’s freeze promise.
Minister Demetrios Nicolaides is right now touring many of the province’s 26 post-secondaries. He’ll meet a lot of people who’ve been worried for weeks by talk of deep cuts.
At the Chamber, Toews cited advanced education as a big spending problem, even before he got to health care.
Since 2005-06, he noted, spending on colleges and universities has increased nearly 110 per cent, while enrolment grew by 21 per cent.
Alberta spends $35,510 per full-time student, $15,000 more than Ontario, and also far more than both B.C. and Quebec.
The University of Alberta comes in for unwelcome attention. Government funding is $3,336 per full-time student, much more than the U of C, at $2,732 per student.
Both Alberta schools require far more public cash than the University of British Columbia, University of Toronto or McGill University.
This doesn’t necessarily mean the schools spend too much money — just that, in the UCP view, the public purse provides too much of it.
The MacKinnon report calls for wholesale reform, including abolition of the tuition cap and finding alternate sources of funds.
It also says: “The government should move quickly to address the future of those post-secondary institutions that do not appear to be viable in future funding scenarios.”
That could mean closing some schools, or shrinking them, or amalgamating them as campuses of larger schools.
Overall, one great question is how the quality of services can possibly be maintained amid such a drastic upheaval across the whole government.
Neither the UCP nor the MacKinnon report even contemplates the question. Rather, they launch into reveries about how the very implosion of bureaucracy can somehow unleash creativity and improvement.
The plan would “develop, transform and empower the public service so it has the culture and capacity to deliver on the economic vision and strategy established for the province.”
We’ve heard that one before, most notably in the 2008 health-care reform that promised less spending and brought more.
But this is the UCP’s emerging plan. We are welcome to drink to it. Heavily.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald.