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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Norris Misses the "Mark!"

Mark Norris is reported as saying Alberta’s revenue surpluses are “due to bad budgeting and over taxation” is just plain inaccurate and imprudent. A catchy sound bite for sure and the Sun newspapers will eat it up. In the real world it is nothing short of a dangerous presumption and a supercilious operating principle for any serious aspirant to political leadership.

Government surpluses that result from program and operating functions are not “over taxation” necessarily and definitely not in every instance. It could be “bad budgeting” but in every budget certain judgment calls have to be made on all kinds of assumptions and issues around program costs and criteria. Surpluses are more likely the result of inaccurate assumptions over a actual program costs, the implementation and timing, or a mis-assessment of an actual program need, or incorrect assumption over our amount, pace, distribution and make up of our population growth (think Fort McMurray). It may be the result of a less than enthusiastic program acceptance or many many other things that depend on human judgment and assumptions.

Look at the recent Centennial matching scholarship program that apparently nobody wants to participate in. Is that causing a surplus and as a result bad budgeting? Norris “won’t tolerate it” but what will his intolerance lead him to do about it? Can we assume even more simple minded “solutions?” Could it be the program was founded on an incorrect assumption as to what people will contribute toward the future of their kid’s education in the current inflationary and volatile Alberta economy? Is it possible that young Albertans with school age kids are using the cash they have for education to meet huge school fee hikes, increases in school transportation costs, rising gasoline prices, increased electricity charges, runaway shelter costs and increased inflation? Could it be they don't feel comfortable “freezing” cash just now in a program that may or may to be needed or even sufficient for the purposes intended at some vague time in the future? Even if it is matched by government. In Mark’s world this is “bad budgeting and must not be tolerated.”

Surpluses generated by larger resource revenues resulting from higher than estimated commodity prices are not over taxation either. They are windfalls and need to be used in ways to the benefit of future generations as much, if not more, than current operational needs. Would Mark “not tolerate” this as bad budgeting as well? It is not necessarily “bad budgeting” that all these variables are estimated and assumed for overall budget calculation purposes and that they may prove inaccurate in the end.

Misleading us as to the amount of resource revenue surpluses by accounting obfuscation and fiscal trickery…now that is more than bad budgeting, it is bad government. That practice has been more common, in both the Alberta and the federal Liberal governments in recent years. That approach is just plain bad governing. That is something that really has to stop. Mark Norris "no tolerance" stance is something he could use for this issue if he is serious about changing budgeting policy and procedures. The consequences of inaccurate financial reporting and intentionally misleading fiscal messaging is a truly bad budget practice that should not be tolerated.

Norris’ media comments really shows a serious lack of insight as to the complexity, issues and the fiscal dynamics of good government and effective governing. For each and every complex governance challenge there is always a simple solution - that is usually WRONG. Norris is a nice guy but apparently does not have a very deep grasp of such thing as revenue surpluses and public sector budgeting.

Norris has been dubbed “The Klein Clone” by no less than the likes of Art Smith and Phil Klein. These gentlemen are Ralph's mentor and father respectively. They ought to know a Klein Clone personality when they see one. Haven’t we already been there and done that? Do we really need to do that again? Is repeating that set of pesonal qualities the best way to go forward for Alberta? Those are some of the questions Albertans have to ask themselves as they assess the PC leadership candidates and wanna-be Premiers.

Politically however, Mark Norris is no Ralph Klein. He aspires to the Premier's office as a relative neophyte candidate having been elected only once and then losing his seat and Cabinet postion in the last provincial election. That suggests he is not yet ready to lead or to govern. He has not yet justified the public's confidence to the point where we citizens should grant him our consent to govern. Maybe next time but not this time.