While Jason Kenney’s televised address to the province on Tuesday night gave details on how the COVID-19 pandemic in the province could play out in terms of cases and deaths, some political scientists say the comments the premier made in regards to the economic future of Alberta didn’t provide a lot of specifics.
One political scientist in the province said there is one option for the government to increase revenue: implementing a provincial sales tax (PST).
Mensah said the pandemic has completely changed the circumstances of the province, and that while the UCP had campaigned on a platform of fiscal conservatism, there needs to be a way of balancing the books going forward.
“The only way available is to look at a modest PST, to provide options for the government to be able to fund programs.”
Kenney said in his Tuesday night address that the social distancing and closure orders in the province would be in place at least until the end of May. He also said that the province would eventually roll out a “relaunch strategy” to get the economy moving again, involving mass testing to get those with immunity back to work, and increasing border screening.
However, once the premier addressed the situation with the global oil markets, experts said there was a lack of clarity on how the province could move past this.
“There didn’t seem to be a whole lot of answers, and just some real dangerous situations,” Mount Royal University political science professor Duane Bratt said.
“[Kenney] talked about a budget deficit that will triple to about $20 billion dollars, [he] talked about negative prices for energy — where we may have to pay people to take it — and there was no sense of how we’re going to get out of that,” said Bratt.
In his address Tuesday, Kenney said he could not “overstate how grave the implications of this will be for jobs, the economy and the financial security of Albertans.
“Much of this is due to the COVID-19 recession, but it has been made worse by a predatory price war led by Saudi Arabia and Russia, who are trying permanently to damage North America’s energy industry.”
Bratt said that while Kenney did reference the Keystone XL pipeline project as an important energy investment made by the government, as well as the work being put into collaborating with its federal counterpart and the U.S in regards to the energy sector, when it came to the province’s economic future, “he didn’t go into the same degree of details, the same strength of numbers as was on the health side.”
While the PST has been a difficult policy option for governments in the past, the COVID-19 situation has put the government into a spot that would be tricky to get out of without it, Mensah said.
“It’s the time to really put aside the ideology of fiscal conservatism,” Mensah said. “I think there’s room for a modest PST, to generate revenue in these uncertain times. You could even put a sunset on the PST— you could have it for five years or so, for the revenue to start to improve.
“The government really has to re-calibrate here and come up with an alternate approach to the province’s finances,” he said.
Kenney has shut down PST idea
However, on March 9, just over a week before Alberta declared a health emergency due to COVID-19, Kenney shut down the idea.
“I cannot imagine a dumber thing to do in the midst of a time of economic fragility, an oil price collapse and a global recession, than to add a multi-billion-dollar tax on the Alberta economy and on Alberta families,” he said.
“You’re talking about a PST that would generate several billion dollars of revenue. That would take several thousand dollars out of the pockets of Alberta families at the worst possible time.
“This government is not going to take thousands of dollars out of people’s household budgets at a time of real economic challenge,” Kenney said.
On Wednesday, a spokesperson for the premier said in a statement that Kenney’s previous comments on the idea of a provincial sales tax still stand.
Cases of COVID-19 have spiked and mass layoffs have been handed out in Alberta since March 9, when there were just seven confirmed cases in the province. Just under a month later, on April 8, there were 1,423.
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