Agriculture budget cutbacks — it could have been worse

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Whenever agriculture or farmers are mentioned on the front page of an urban newspaper it must be of some consequence. So it was recently with the announcement of government cutbacks to the 2013 Alberta Agriculture budget. However, determining how much is actually going to be cut is the question.

That’s not unique to the agriculture budget. For the first time the minister of finance presented three different budgets with expenditures categorized between operating, capital expenditure and savings. There was no particular reason for this unique accounting practice except that it tried to hide a massive government deficit that was to be covered by massive borrowing. It boggles the mind as to what the government was thinking. The media and opposition were quick to unravel this accounting shell game and announce that within a few years the Alberta government would have a $10-billion-plus debt. It all made the government look shifty.

On the other side of the coin it was expected that cutbacks in government spending would occur to address the impending deficit. Well, yes and no as it turned out. Some departments were spared, some received modest increases and some got hit badly. Alberta Agriculture seemed to have gotten particular attention and saw cutbacks of anywhere from 10 to 20 per cent depending on how one interpreted the government’s three-headed budgetary process. Governments everywhere are notorious for trying to spread out bad news over a period of years and taking immediate credit for increased revenue that is either just conjecture or is expected in the future. Shuffling expenditures around different programs and agencies is another well-known practice. Therefore it is going to be difficult to find out what the actual cutbacks to the department will be over the next three years.

What we do know is that the Farm Fuel Rebate program will be cut back by six cents. This puts producers more in line with those in other provinces, so it was hard to justify its continuance. It did have some political mischief in it being that the opposition Wildrose Party is not going to oppose that cutback, nor reinstate it if ever elected, since the party is ideologically opposed to subsidies.

The Alberta Meat and Livestock Agency saw $8 million cut from its $30-million budget. That’s a deep cut and unwarranted. That agency is one of few government entities that is well managed and whose activities actually increase jobs and economic activity. Again there would be little opposition reaction as Wildrose had some negative perspectives of this agency in the last election.

One can’t help but notice that the government found enough money to set up the Property Rights Advocate office in Lethbridge to defend and promote its controversial property legislation to obstinate landowners. It would also seem that money was found to continue the patronage job of Evan Berger, the former ag minister, and now the government’s special adviser for southern Alberta.

Infrastructure

Some other cutbacks that could be significant but aren’t reflected in the ag budget involve infrastructure. It’s clear from the overall budget that MDs and counties will get less money for roads and bridges that are critical to ag production. With Alberta Health Services (AHS) centralized in Edmonton one could expect that services for rural Alberta will continue to be downsized. Add all of that together and rural and small-town Alberta will be getting severely hit and probably disproportionately.

Most producer groups were relieved that the cutbacks were not worse, although that could still come. The government also expects to see some savings from joint programs shared with the feds. However, any weather, market or disease calamities would seriously alter the budget projections. There was a sense that agriculture should share the burden in these times of restraint. A noble perspective if it were actually true. The reality is that the departments that spend the most were not cut back at all.

The education budget was unchanged and AHS actually saw a four per cent increase. The latter was particularly galling after it was revealed that AHS had spent $100 million on questionable travelling, meeting and employee expenses. That makes a mockery of the cutbacks applied to Alberta Agriculture.

A more fair approach would have been to apply a 10 per cent cutback to every aspect of government expenditures. It was done before during the Klein years and it worked. However, that affected too many voters, better to pick on agriculture with fewer voters to worry about. Besides there is some added political satisfaction for the government, by accident or design most of the cutbacks to the agriculture sector will affect producers in southern Alberta, where most of the province’s agriculture industry is located.

By sheer coincidence that’s also the production area that voted in all those Wildrose Party MLAs in the last election. I expect the ruling PC government would like all this to be food for thought for voters in that area.

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