Braid: The needlessly petty parts of the UCP budget

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews and Premier Jason Kenney after Toews delivered his budget speech at the Alberta Legislature in Edmonton on Oct. 24, 2019. Larry Wong/Postmedia

There was a budget in the spring of 2015 that raised taxes for individuals but not corporations, and included many hikes to taxes, fees and other charges for citizens.

Albertans did not like it. The final PC government, led by Premier Jim Prentice, promptly got slaughtered by the NDP, thus ending a 43-year reign.

Now Alberta has a UCP budget that actually lowers taxes for corporations, sharply reduces funding for many institutions, while restricting benefits to some individuals, including students and AISH recipients.

Many voters want these deep cuts. After four years of free NDP spending and growing debt, restraint seems necessary.

But what few expected, I think, is the budget’s casual passing of serious costs to powerless individuals.

The shabby treatment of post-secondary students, for instance, is almost beyond belief.

The cap on tuition is lifted. That much was expected.

Schools can increase tuition by seven per cent a year for four years. And they will, given the major cuts to their operating funding — 6.9 per cent this year for the University of Calgary and University of Alberta.

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The inevitable tuition hikes will be challenging for students, doubtless forcing many to take out bigger student loans.

And what does the UCP do next? It raises the interest rates on those loans to one per cent above prime.

There’s a petty whiff of payday loan about this. These loans are already a debilitating burden for many graduates, often for years after they finish school.

A one per cent increase isn’t trivial. For a $30,000 loan amortized for 10 years, the extra cost is $15 a month. Over 10 years that totals $1,800.

But the UCP wasn’t finished with students yet. The budget also eliminates the education tax credit and tuition tax credit.

University students will almost certainly see their tuition rise in the next few years. Gavin Young/Postmedia

To a full-time student, the education credit was worth $75 per month of study. The tuition credit saved $500 for a person paying $5,000 in tuition.

“All these measures will have severe impacts on affordability and accessibility, causing many Alberta families to sink further into debt,” a group of student association leaders said Monday.

To finish off this bizarre pounce on students, the UCP eliminates the Summer Temporary Employment Program, which might have helped many of them pay the extra costs.

It’s understandable that the UCP restricted cash flow to the top of the post-secondary food chain. Increasing costs for the people on the bottom is inexcusable.

For recipients of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped, known as AISH, the move to de-index monthly payments is equally petty, and damaging.

For many people who already struggle monthly to feed and house themselves, this means an eight per cent decrease in the value of payments over four years.

AISH recipients fought for years to get both inflation indexing and a hike in monthly payments. In the fall of 2018, the NDP agreed.


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So did many UCP MLAs. During debate on the bill, Dave Hanson from Bonnyville said:

“This indexing to CPI will greatly benefit all support recipients who have been waiting years for an adjusted amount that reflects today’s cost-of-living increases. We’ve heard, devastatingly, from AISH advocates that some cannot even afford basic necessities. This is absolutely unacceptable.”

That was before the UCP got elected. Now they prefer the absolutely unacceptable.

The UCP likes to look nostalgically to the 1990s era of cost-cutting. They seem to forget that Premier Ralph Klein had a much wider mandate for cuts than Premier Jason Kenney does now.

In the 1993 campaign, the Liberals were even more aggressive about restraint than Klein’s PCs.

The Tories won 51 seats, the Liberals 32. But in an election where the voters chose between tough and tougher, their combined share of the popular vote was nearly 85 per cent — a massive mandate for serious budget cuts.

This year, Kenney won a huge majority — 63 seats — with 54 per cent of the vote. But 32 per cent of Albertans still supported the NDP, which opposed the UCP fiscal plan.

Kenney is strong, no doubt of that, but also vulnerable. To win long-term support, his budgets will need more heart than this one.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Calgary Herald.

dbraid@postmedia.com

Twitter: @DonBraid

Facebook: Don Braid Politics

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