Crawl Across the Ocean

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Budget 2006

So another year, another budget. The budget documents can be found here. The Star has decent coverage here. The detailed budget (big pdf) is here.

Note: all page references in this post are to the pdf of the full budget.

First some basic grounding: Canada's GDP this time last year was $1,369 billion. It is estimated that the GDP is currently $1,451 billion, a 6% increase, of which 3% percent was expanded economic activity, 2.9% was inflation and 0.1% was rounding error (figures from page 37).

So 1% of current GDP is roughly $14.5 billion.

Total federal tax revenue for this year is estimated at $221 billion, about 16.1% of GDP.

The federal debt is estimated at $486 billion, with interest payments on the debt costing roughly $34 billion/year at present.

Program spending is estimated at $179 billion, with almost half of that ($88 billion) being direct program expenses, and the rest made up of transfers to people ($53 billion) and transfers to other levels of government ($37 billion).

The next stage in setting-up the budget is the most painful for me. On page 156 there is a table showing what the status quo would look like (i.e. if we didn't have today's budget). Taking no action to cut taxes or increase spending, we would be looking at a surplus of $17.8 billion on 2006-7 and $19.4 billion the year after that.

Think about that for a second. Just by doing nothing for a couple of years, we could reduce the federal debt by $18 billion and then $19 billion. Recall that each $20 billion or so we remove from the debt saves us at least $1 billion each year in interest costs.

The actual budget is projecting surplusses of $3 billion for 2006-7 and the year after. So, in a nutshell, we know that the budget contains a combination of tax cuts and new spending which adds up to roughly $15 billion / year.

Unfortunately, relatively little of this $15 billion was directed to what I consider our highest priorities - in particular child poverty and global warming. Where is the money going?

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Spending Summary for Significant Items
(Sorted in decreasing order of magnitude (item / cost in 2006-07 / cost in 2007-08):

Reduce GST to 6% / $3.5 / $5.2
Family Allowance ($1200/year for each kid under 7) / $1.6 / $2.3
Personal Income Tax Rate Lower Bracket Change1 / $1.7 / $1.3
Money for Farmers / $1.5 / $0.5
Basic Personal Amount Increase (reduction)1 / $1.1 / $0.5
Canada Employment Credit2 / $0.9 / $1.8
Infrastructure Spending / $0.4 / $0.9
Defense3 / $0.4 / $0.7
Federal Capital Tax3 / $0.8 / $0.2
Pension Income Credit / $0.4 / $0.4
Large Corporation Dividends / $0.4 / $0.3
Aboriginal Communities4 / $0.2 / $0.4
Immigration Fee Reduction & Increased Settlement Funds / $0.3 / $0.3
Pandemic Preparation / $0.2 / $0.3
Crimefighting / More Jails / $0.2 / $0.3
Transit Pass Deduction / $0.2 / $0.2
Border Security / $0.2 / $0.2
Apprenticeship Tax Credit / $0.2 / $0.2

1 The Liberals reduced the lowest tax bracket form 16% to 15% for 2006 in their November 2005 economic update in November 2005. The Conservatives have increased the rate back to 15.5%, starting at the midpoint of 2006. So it is a tax increase yet a cost in comparison to last year when the rate was 16%. It is a similar story with the basic personal exemption amount.

2The Canada Employment Credit, as far as I can tell, is pretty much equivalent to raising the basic personal exemption by $500 this year and $500 more the next year - the only (very slight) difference being that income which isn't from employment won't be eligible for the credit.

3 Not sure if the government is just considering possible purchases of new equipment as 'off-budget' because military equipment is a capital asset or if this means they aren't planning any equipment purchases for two years - anyone with more insight is welcome to comment.

4Not exactly the Kelowna Accord

There were a few other spending commitments mentioned (additional funding of up to $3.3 billion for provinces, contingent on the size of the 2005-06 surplus, up to $0.3 billion to fight disease in the developing world, up to $0.8 billion for affordable housing) but they sounded wishy-washy and I didn't see where they fit on the financial summary on page 23 so they're not on the list.

Speaking of lists, page 202 has a full list of taxation measures and their estimated cost. In addition to the above there is also the Jewellery tax reduction, tax breaks for small scale alcohol producers, tax breaks for fishing families handing down assets (like boats), extension of the mineral exploration tax credit (because mining companies really need a boost right now), tradespeople tool tax credit expansion, scholarship income tax exemption extension, swimming lessons for little Johnny (children's fitness) tax credit, less means testing and a slight expansion of the child disability benefit, increase to the refundable medical expense supplement, tax breaks for donations of securities or ecologically sensitive land to charity, removal of the corporate surtax, lower tax rate for small business and expansion of the definition of small business, reduction in the minimum tax on financial institutions, increases to the capital cost allowance for tools, and accelerated capital cost allowance for forestry bioenergy (a tax break for pulp and paper mills - one of two environmental measures in the budget, along with the transit tax deduction).

Needless to say, I was heartbroken when the tax credit for people named Declan was pulled out of the budget at the last minute, but you should check the fine print to see if any tax credits for having your name made it in.

One expense which isn't spelled out (ostensibly because it was included in the last budget, although it was never implemented) is the cost of reducing the corporate tax rate from 21% to 19%.

Also, the budget doesn't highlight where they have reduced spending, most notably by not renewing the child care agreements made by the Liberals withthe provinces and by cancelling programs related to combating climate change.

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I have three main concerns with the budget:

1) The Conservatives are not taking global warming at all seriously. There is more money for compensating for one of the earliest impacts of global warming (for the Pine Beetle infestation in B.C.) than there is for any research, infrastructure, support for alternative fuels or anything really that could make a significant impact on our emissions. In fact, one of the few areas where spending was cut was the existing programs put in place by the Liberals. Those programs may or may not have been having an impact, but I'm guessing they were better than nothing. Like I said before, Polar Bears were overrated anyway, although they are just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak.

2) The lost opportunity for significant debt reduction. It is simple, the status quo would have made a huge dent in our debt but instead the Conservatives chose big tax breaks which will probably most benefit the people who helped get us into this mess and should be solving most of it before they depart from the workforce for good.

3) Income inequality. The Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives had a good paper (pdf) a couple of weeks back which showed who benefited most from the Conservative's proposed tax cuts. Not surprisingly, the wealthy benefit most, both because they pay the most taxes (for example, the 5.3% of Canadians who make more than $150,000 year get 18.3% of the benefits from the reduced GST) and because many of the tax cuts are targetted more towards the wealthy (for example, the 5.4% of Canadians who make more than $150,000 get 64.4% of the gains from reducing the taxation of dividends).

On the flip side, the universal child care payment in which my tax dollars provide millionaire couples with $100/month to increase their 'choice' in child care is a case where money could have been targetted to those who need it most, but wasn't.

All told, the budget will work to increase inequality in the country, which is not an ideal outcome.

----
To be sure, there are things I like about the budget:

- I think that some tax relief was appropriate - just not that much and that scattered.
- Also, reverting to a two year budget plan (not 5 like last year) is a big improvement.
- Money for pandemic preparation is wise.
- There isn't too much new money for seniors, which is good policy at this point.
- Removal of the remaining 25% capital gain tax on donations of securities and ecologically sensitive land to charities makes a lot of sense.
- Increasing the taxes on alcohol and tobacco so that the total tax take is the same after the GST reduction makes sense as well.
- I was relieved to see that the planned spending reductions seem to have been trimmed to a more plausible figure
- And finally, there is no mention of the crazy promise in the Conservative platform to eliminate the capital gains tax on anything reinvested within 6 months.

There are probably other good ideas I've missed, after all, the budget is over 300 pages.


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Some Random Comments:

- Those who worry about the high cost of frequent elections should take note of the following in page 158:
"Program expenses in 2005-06 are $1.5 billion lower relative to the November Update, primarily because a significant portion of planned spending that would normally have taken place under appropriation bills did not proceed this year due to the dissolution of Parliament in November."


- While the budget is always written to paint the current government in a flattering light, I found it was a little overly partisan at times this year, and somewhat lacking the disinterested profession tone of previous budgets. Furthermore, I noticed a number of Fraser Institute like ploys to try and mislead rather than inform with charts and tables. For example, the chart on page 171 comparing program expenses to GDP is carefully designed to start in 1999-2000 when program expenses were very low after being slashed dramatically in the 90's. That way the chart makes it look like there has been a big increase in spending when really spending levels are still lower than they were a little over a decade ago.

Or on page 12,
"This budget proposes comprehensive tax relief for individuals, valued at almost $20 billion over the next two years - more than the last four budgets combined."

Of course if you go back 5 budgets, that was a budget that brought in large multi-year tax cuts so this is some pretty transparent cherry-picking.

- I was surprised by the note on page 12 that any surplus beyond the planned $3 billion might be diverted to the CPP/QPP. Given that the CPP/QPP is considered actuarially sound (as noted by Dean and Bailey in the comments to my last post) I guess this would amount to current taxpayers paying extra to provide more benefits to later generations. Works for me, although I would think that just putting the money to the debt would accomplish the same thing more effectively.

- On page 14, "$1 billion to assist farmers in the transition to more effective
programming for farm income stabilization and disaster relief." Anyone know exactly what this means?

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Final Thoughts:

There are some good ideas here, I appreciate that they kept things simple for the most part and there is little in the budget to cause serious offense, likely a reflection of the minority government situation and the relative ease of starting from projected $18 billion surplusses.

At root, the biggest problem I have with this budget is exemplified by a paragraph from page 12.
"As a result of these personal income tax and GST reductions, families earning between $15,000 and $30,000 a year will be better off by almost $300 in 2007. Families earning between $45,000 and $60,000 will save almost $650."


Two points - the first one is that they pointedly don't highlight how much a family making over $150,000 will save - probably because it is a figure which would dwarf the savings for lower income earners (although to be fair there is a more complete chart on page 67), reflecting the fact that this is a budget which will worsen inequality.

But more importantly, note the wording, "will be better off by almost $300."
In order to believe that someone will be better off by the entire amount that their tax bill has been reduced, one has to assume that taxes, once collected, simply disappear into thin air without providing any benefit to anyone. Maybe just a poor choice of words, but I think it goes deeper than that.

This Conservative budget, which lacks much imagination beyond simply taking the projected surplus and handing it back to Canadians via a huge uncoordinated stack of tax cuts, tax credits, tax exemptions and flat out handouts, perfectly reflects this Conservative belief that government can not be a force for good in this country.

Given that they have removed the margin for error that the Liberals typically built into the budget, I hope that the Conservatives have their economics correct. But beyond economics, they might want to brush up on their history as well. The history of this country has a lot of stories of Canada succeeding through collective action co-ordinated by government. But stories about how tax credits helped make the country great are a little harder to come up with.

14 Comments:

  • Thanks. Excellent.

    By Blogger KevinG, at 7:29 AM  

  • Good work, Declan. I agree with most of your comments, although in a progressive tax system it is inevitable that any tax cut will benefit "the wealthy" more than others. Since the alternatives are to reduce progressivity (which I would probably like more than you ;) ) or forever swear off tax cuts, this is just something that "the Left" will have to live with, and "the Right" will have to get accustomed to hearing people complain about.

    I would also have liked to see more money going to debt reduction, although I am not sure that the budget doesn't have the same sort of cushions and deliberately pessimistic assumptions that used to so delight PMPM - I haven't looked at their growth forecasts or interest and exchange rate forecasts yet. I am also puzzled by the 'surplus diversion to CPP/QPP' reference - unless the idea is that this will hasten the day that we can reduce CPP contribution rates; that would be a good thing all 'round as payroll taxes are targetted job-killers - but then why leave it as a throwaway?

    By Blogger deaner, at 8:59 AM  

  • Deaner,

    How is that inevitable? There are lots of ways in a progressive tax system to cut taxes in ways that target teh poorest people.

    For instance, tax credits to people who have a total income under a certain threshold would do it. Or cuts to marginal rates at lower incomes coupled with offsetting increases in higher brackets.

    By Anonymous Kevin Brennan, at 9:18 AM  

  • Yes, Kevin - I meant to say, "any generalized tax cut" - but my fingers misfired.

    Sorry for the miscommunication.

    By Blogger deaner, at 9:24 AM  

  • Fantastic, as always Declan.

    I have found myself feeling quite odd lately - I, an uabashed lefty and Dipper, find myself agreeing with Rob at MyBlahg and Declan here that paying down the debt might be the best thing, long term.

    And the CPC are the ones spending the surplus on tax cuts and programs.

    Wierd.

    By Blogger Mike, at 10:02 AM  

  • You believe the Libs and/or NDP would not have spent most of a surplus?

    Wierd.

    By Blogger AwaWiYe, at 1:17 PM  

  • You believe the Libs and/or NDP would not have spent most of a surplus?

    We can only speculate as to what the NDP would do since they've never held power federally, but the Liberals paid down nearly $100 billion of the debt over 9 years.

    3 Not sure if the government is just considering possible purchases of new equipment as 'off-budget' because military equipment is a capital asset or if this means they aren't planning any equipment purchases for two years - anyone with more insight is welcome to comment.

    I read in the budget somewhere that big ticket purchases have not been included in this budget and will only be listed when they're made. So most likely military spending is going to increase further this year and next.

    By Blogger Robert McClelland, at 2:00 PM  

  • "...but the Liberals paid down nearly $100 billion of the debt over 9 years."

    If only.

    The Department of Finance shows "Accumulated Deficit" rather than "Net Public Debt" on their current series for Federal fiscal transactions - during the time from 1961 to 1996 that the two series ran they were close enough (identical until an accounting change in the mid-80s, then minor differences, albeit with 'net public debt' always higher than accumulated deficit) that we can use it as a proxy for public debt.

    When the Liberals came into power we were 3/4 of the way through the 1993/94 Fiscal Year - assume that they had no opportunity to make any changes, so all the accumulated deficit to 93/94 is attributable to the prior governments: the cummulative deficit stood at $487.5Bn. At the end of the last fiscal year (2004/05) the cumulative deficit stood at $499.9Bn, for a net increase in defict of ~$12.5Bn. Looking back only nine years, rather than over the whole 13 year run, the accumulated deficit stood at $554.2Bn at the end of FY 1995/96 - the reduction since then has been just over $54Bn. Over the nine year period to 2005/06 the repayment might improve a little - we get one more year of repayment, although Goody was throwing money around like a drunken economist last year (or was that the Minister of National Revenue?), and we miss one year of annual deficit (~$8Bn) in 1996-97, but I doubt that the difference is enough to characterize the repayment as "nearly $100Bn"

    By Blogger deaner, at 3:38 PM  

  • I'll be curious to see how much Jack Layton and the NDP are willing to support the Conservatives, given how the budget largely ignores climate change and alternative energy. As a Canadian working on climate issues in the US, I dare say the Conservatives seem behind even more behind the times than the Republicans in the US. Though there is no coherent federal policy, momentum in the US is at least slowly switching in the direction of action on energy and emissions. The Conservatives are going the other way.

    By Blogger Simon Donner, at 5:15 PM  

  • >We can only speculate as to what the NDP would do since they've never held power federally

    We got a good preview last summer.

    By Blogger AwaWiYe, at 5:42 PM  

  • "We got a good preview last summer."

    Yeah. Budget remained balanced, $3 billion was still paid on the debt and help was given to people who actually needed it (as opposed to this budget).

    Yeah, terrible and totally fiscally irresponsible. Damn those dippers.

    Don't bother to learn facts or anything Awawiye. That gets in the way of a good partisan rant.

    By Blogger Mike, at 7:48 AM  

  • The point is that they chose to spend. Everyone who pays taxes knows the best they can expect from the NDP is to make sure revenues match expenditures. It's the growth of the expenditure side that is the focal point.

    By Blogger AwaWiYe, at 12:44 PM  

  • I guess nobody informed my provincial NDP government of that fact, awawiye. They've been gradually cutting taxes since they got the provincial deficit under control, which they accomplished before any other province.

    This last budget, they slashed business taxes so severely, you'd think they were conservative. Except conservatives where I live don't know how to balance a budget.

    By Anonymous famousringo, at 8:43 PM  

  • Fantastic analysis. Love the sarcasm!

    I don't understand how the Conservatives still have a reputation as fiscally prudent when they form governments that run deficits, chuck money out the window, and don't pay down the debt -- the biggest siphoner off needed spending programs.

    "the universal child care payment in which my tax dollars provide millionaire couples with $100/month to increase their 'choice' in child care is a case where money could have been targetted to those who need it most, but wasn't."

    One quibble: This blanket statement isn't completely true. I know one couple with a middle-class income and the mother stays at home. They will receive and need the full benefit. They have one child with Down's and another who's gifted. Though the government takes care of some expenses for the disabled child, they have to cover the extra costs of a gifted child themselves, and being good parents, they don't want to waste his mind for lack of dollars. They like the extra $100/month, for every dollar helps.

    By Blogger talk talk talk, at 4:44 PM  

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