When is a deficit not a deficit?

With the release of its 2013-14 budget estimates, the provincial government is requiring Albertans to accept and understand

With the release of its 2013-14 budget estimates, the provincial government is requiring Albertans to accept and understand a new financial language.

Buried in the numbing obfuscation of its budget, the Progressive Conservative government pledges to have an operational deficit of $451 million, borrow $4.3 billion for infrastructure, and end the year with a cash adjusted deficit of $6.3 billion. Depending on whose estimates you believe.

The Wildrose says the deficit is projected at $5.5 billion; the Liberals estimate it to be $5.9 billion; the NDP sets the shortfall at $6 billion; but the Canadian Taxpayers Federation is the most generous of all, pegging the deficit at $6.7 billion.

The reason no one can give you a straight answer on the budget deficit or surplus — remember them? — is because the government has made every attempt to cloud its position in financial gobbledygook. You can’t make an apples to apples comparison of the deficits the Stelmach government racked up and the litany of losses now being accumulated by Premier Alison Redford. It’s like apples and rutabagas. Or imperial and metric. There is no “bottom line.” By applying this new accounting logic, the PCs could rewrite history and convince Albertans Ed Stelmach didn’t post a succession of deficits over his term. Not that they would want to grant him that concession.

The government won’t accept responsibility for the $6-billion mess we’re in so its new tack is to change the way it accounts for its overspending. A Kobayashi Muru for accountants, if you will; they’ve redefined the accounting process. So to try to convince us it is being responsible, the government has designed a three-budget shell game.

There is an operational budget with an estimated $451-million deficit; a capital budget that borrows $4.3 billion to help fund $5.2 billion in construction projects; and a savings budget created by raiding the Sustainability Fund.

It’s a tough budget: tough on students and teachers, tough on municipalities, tough on social services, and tough on seniors and the unemployed. It will also be a tough budget for the premieress to sell.

The government is making some late attempts to deal with the spending side of its budget but there is still no real evidence of a plan to deal with Alberta’s unsustainable over-reliance on energy revenue. This government plans to borrow $12.7 billion before the next election to help pay for its $17-billion capital plan. That might be an easier sell than continuing to chip away at the operational or soft side where the government pays teachers, doctors and nurses, civil service staff. There is no new money in the budget to accommodate new wage settlements.

Albertans and their government live in a land of make-believe where we want schools and hospitals in every community, streets paved with provincial black gold, and our purchases unencumbered by a sales tax.

Future generations will be grateful if we just found a means to pay our own way.