It is gratifying to know, as 2024 begins, that the UCP is deeply concerned about inflation and affordability.
We know this because they removed the cap on the value of gifts to themselves.
Premier Danielle Smith’s cabinet may now decide what’s acceptable, even gifts well above the former limits of $200 a year for non-monetary presents, and $400 for tickets from any one source.
The premier had been annoyed, for one thing, by limits that seemed to prevent her from going to the Heritage Classic hockey game in Edmonton.
So the government changed the rules.
“It gives us the ability to move with the current times when and if it’s required,” said Justice Minister Mickey Amery.
“It will allow for changes to happen that reflect the current landscape and environment.”
Politicians can now receive gifts worth up to $500. Non-monetary gifts valued at more than $1,000 could be approved, if reported to the ethics commissioner.
These amounts are far above what many families could afford for their kids at Christmas. There’s an ethical issue, too; why should politicians be taking gifts at all?
It’s not as if they can’t afford to buy their own tickets. An MLA’s base salary is $120,936. Ministers get an extra $60,486.
But Canadian politicians, and certainly the Albertans, have considered gifts and prized tickets a perk of office for decades.
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The gift stunt came not long before the UCP reimposed nine cents per litre of gasoline tax and revealed that the income tax break promised without conditions in the election will not happen this year.
They’d never dare to do any of that before an election.
The government supplied serious inflation relief before the May 29 vote and for months afterward.
But that urge is now giving way to fears about deficits that were never mentioned before, and still don’t appear in government fiscal forecasts.
The omens for 2024 are clear already. With more than three years left in the term, this government will tighten up fiscally and limit spending increases in many areas, except perhaps health care.
In a year-end interview, Smith said of the income tax promise: “That’ll be phased in. I mean, Premier (Jason) Kenney phased his in in three years, the corporate income tax (cut).”
The difference is that Kenney said the tax break would come in stages.
During the 2019 election campaign, he stated that the tax rate would be reduced by one point per year until it had dropped from 12 per cent to eight per cent.
Early the next year, Kenney said the schedule would be escalated to implement the tax break in just over three years.
There are many opinions about that break for big corporations. The NDP hated it. In last year’s campaign they promised (disastrously) to raise the tax again.
But Kenney can’t be accused of masking his intentions. He was crystal clear. He even fulfilled his promise earlier than expected.
Smith’s UCP, by stark contrast, led Albertans to believe they would promptly receive an income tax break of more than $700 per individual, and $1,500 per family.
Now the premier says: “We will absolutely implement the income tax cut before the next election.”
Voila. An unkept promise from the last election campaign becomes a useful tool for the next one.
The question is whether this new frugality will bring more general cuts to government spending.
Smith said she has always argued, both as a commentator and previously as Wildrose leader, that “you slow the rate of increase.
“I think that once an administration has gotten used to a certain level of money, they hire people, people have an expectation of wage increases and benefits.
“It’s very difficult to deliver cuts in that environment. But if you slow the rate of increase, so that you can . . . add staff a little bit more slowly, you can change processes along the way, then your revenues can grow faster than your expenditures.”
The budget coming late next month may paint pictures starkly different from the 2022 version of Smith’s government.
But they’ve got that little gift problem nicely handled, with three years to go before they face the voters again.
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald