Free Money

Chaos in Print

I don’t like wading into political debates. Granted, I do enjoy politics and follow them closely, but debates are not friendly to me. No matter how well prepared I am; no matter how many statistics I have in my corner backing me up, my opponent always seems to have just that much more in his/her corner, and it’s not long before I’m left gasping for breath. My opponent walks away, assured of his/her victory, and I’m left there questioning my own beliefs. But, there’s something going on right now that I feel I just have to contribute my own two cents. That’s the upcoming $400 “prosperity bonus” going to every Albertan.

For those who don’t care, let me fill you in. Thanks to record-breaking oil prices, the Province of Alberta is…I believe the scientific term is “rolling in it.” The provincial surplus is predicted to be somewhere near $9 billion by the end of the year, and the Alberta Government is left wondering how to spend it. Naturally, the Government retreated into a special caucus meeting to figure this out.

Of course, this is indicative of another problem in Alberta, the “democratic deficit.” In other provinces, deciding how to spend a surplus might be the purview of an all-party committee. But, here in Alberta, the Tories want nothing to do with the opposition. As Ralph Klein has said on many an occasion, “Why should we have to consult the opposition? The majority party forms the government. We are the government. The government decides what to do. No one elected the opposition…to form the government.” Or words to that effect. When Klein came to power, he even brought forth a bunch of “emergency powers” that allows the government to pass and enforce laws without debate in the legislature. He’s turned the legislature into nothing more than a rubber stamp process. But I digress.

When the Tories came out of their special caucus meeting to figure out what to do with the surplus, Klein rushed to the nearest microphone and said, “Free money for everyone!” Every Albertan is to get a “prosperity bonus” of $400. Now, Klein said, “This is just a one time thing. Don’t expect this to become a regular occurrence.” And, in the same breath, he said, “But…if we continue with surpluses this huge, Albertans can expect more!”

Now, you might think people are enjoying getting $400 for free. But, actually, they’re not. This has turned out to be a rather decisive issue. The latest polls say that 48% are for it, 48% are against it, and the rest haven’t made up their mind yet. Apparently, the Tories are seeing this as cause for concern. They’ve launched into a $65,000 advertising campaign saying, “Take your $400 guilt-free! Heck, this is only costing us $1.4 billion of a $6.8 billion surplus. Please! Enjoy!”

(Of course, no one really knows or cares what the rest of the surplus is being spent on, because all attention is focused on the free money for everyone.)

I’ll admit, I’m one of those who’s against it. Seriously, that $1.4 billion could be spent on much better things. I mean, just a few months ago, Infrastructure Minister Lyle Oberg was talking about taking the government back into debt to the tune of $7 billion! Why, you may ask?

Mr. Oberg called it an “infrastructure debt.” See, it’s like this. In the mad rush to pay off the provincial debt, necessary repairs to government buildings have gone undone. Now, by “government buildings,” I’m not talking about Alberta Transportation workshops. I’m talking about hospitals, schools, libraries, and courthouses. In order to pay off the debt, the Tories have ignored $7 billion worth of repairs to hospitals, schools, libraries, and courthouses! As Mr. Oberg pointed out, now that the debt is paid off, it would be really nice to get those repairs done. Klein seemed receptive to the idea at the time, calling it a “good debt.”

Actually, here’s a concept. Why don’t we use some of that money to pay off the debt! What’s that, you say? The debt is paid off? Wrong! It’s only paid off thanks to a trick in accounting.

Let me set up an analogy. You have $1000 on your credit card. You open up a special bank account to keep money that you’ve earmarked for paying off your credit card. Thanks to some shrewd business deals, you wake up one morning to see your special bank account has $1000 in it! You have $1000 earmarked to pay off your credit card. You have $1000 worth of credit card debt. Do you pay off your credit car? No! Instead, you say, “I’m going to make the minimum payments for the next 8 years!” And you start running around, telling all your friends that you’ve paid off your credit card.

That’s how Alberta has paid off its debt. We’ve got a special bank account dedicated to paying off the debt. The amount of money in that account is equal to how much the provincial debt is. The government is going to do nothing but make the minimum payments for the next 12 years, while running around making claims that they’ve paid off the debt. We’ve been told that to pay it all off now would incur penalties so large that it’ll drive us back into debt. In which case, I ask how much are those penalties? Let’s use some of that surplus to cover the penalties, and pay it off now!

And speaking of special bank accounts, what about the Heritage Trust Fund? Let me explain to what it is, in case you don’t know. Peter Lougheed was the first Tory premier of Alberta, and he was actually a pretty smart guy. As Alberta’s first oil boom crested in the 1970s, Lougheed thought, “Hmm…you know, oil’s not going to last forever. Let’s take some of this sweet, sweet oil money and put it in the bank for when the oil runs out.” And that bank account is…the Heritage Trust Fund. And you thought it was just a logo to put on grain cars.

The Heritage Trust Fund is fondly remembered among Troy stalwarts as Lougheed’s legacy. Don Getty succeeded Lougheed, and even though Getty was stuck governing Alberta when the oil market crashed, Getty was still good to find a few dollars to put into the Heritage Trust Fund. And then, Klein. Klein’s done nothing to add to the Heritage Trust Fund. It’s just kind of sat untended since 1995. Wouldn’t putting some of this sweet, sweet oil money away for when the oil runs out be a good idea?

But, the big bug up my butt is health care premiums. See, in order to pay off the debt without raising taxes, Klein came up with the concept of “user fees.” Essentially, everything free that that used to come out of our tax dollars, we were now charged a user free. And the flagship of the user fee system is the health care premium. Once, every three months, Albertans are billed for their health care. A lot of lobby groups have called the health care premiums a tax under another name, and have always pressed to get rid of them.

According to a statistic that the Alberta Liberals were bandying about in the 2001 election, the Alberta Government only makes $577,000 off health care premiums. Just $577,000! With the $1.4 billion that it’s going to cost in this “prosperity bonus,” program, the Alberta government could get rid of health care premiums for 2400 years!!

With all this info, I felt armed. I was pumped. I went to engage in a little political debate with my Dad. I went into the living room where Dad was watching the 6 o’clock news. And, lo and behold, the debate about the prosperity bonuses was on the news! The “get rid of health care premiums” option was bandied about, in which the Alberta Government released a new statistic saying that they pull in $900 million per year from health care premiums. “See that?” Dad said. “They’ll never be able to get rid of health care premiums.”

I figured starting a debate could wait for another day.

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