Albertans received more COVID-19 support from the federal government than any other province, and the provincial government has also left the most money unused, according to a new report.
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, a progressive independent think-tank, did an analysis of federal and provincial pandemic spending. It found Alberta has the largest amount of unallocated COVID-19 funds, worth $1.8 billion. That’s an increase of more than a billion dollars from the $750 million left untapped as of January.
“In terms of budget transparency, it’s difficult to tell whether the expenditures of that fund will be positive or negative, which categories that would go to, and so on,” David Macdonald, a senior economist with the centre, said.
“In a worst case scenario, that might not be spent at all [on COVID response]. It’s just a notional figure in the budget. And if it isn’t spent, all of that unallocated funding would simply go to reduce the deficit.”
Alberta received the most money from Ottawa per person, at $11,410, through programs like the Canada Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) and Canada Emergency Business Account (CEBA). Ontario was the next highest at $9,940.
The report attributes Alberta’s high numbers to the $1 billion in orphan well money and the substantial uptake of business support programs.
Trevor Tombe, an economist at the University of Calgary, told CBC News in an email the centre’s numbers seemed reasonable.
The report is an update to an initial release from January. August’s version found the federal government is picking up most of the cost for COVID measures at $620 billion (an average of 86 per cent of spending, while provinces put up 14 per cent). Several provinces disputed some of the findings of the first report.
“Support for Alberta’s COVID-19 response and recovery plan totalled $5.1 billion, plus $460 million in capital investments,” Premier Jason Kenney’s office wrote in a statement.
“Alberta’s government deferred billions of dollars in fees and taxes to help Albertans keep more of their own money, including $2.5 billion in utility bills, education property tax, student loans, and government fee deferrals. We helped small businesses cope with COVID-19 by providing a total of over $700 million in grants.”
Provinces have slowly shouldered more of those costs since January, compared to the first year of the pandemic. But Alberta has contributed some of the least — just 1.2 per cent of its GDP, according to the report. That’s three times less than provinces like B.C. and Quebec, making the division of spending eight per cent Alberta dollars and 92 per cent federal.
“The business support that came from provincial dollars was the biggest in Alberta compared to all the other provinces,” Macdonald said.
“However, the province spent essentially none of its own money on individual supports or health care expenditures due to COVID-19.”
Alberta’s biggest change from the initial CCPA report in January was that the province took advantage of the essential worker wage program and moved very close to matching the federal funding provided to municipalities.