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PostPosted: Sun Jan 13, 2019 11:32 am

When I was in the sixth grade, Alberta Premier Ralph Klein was heavily cutting government spending. My teacher was so infuriated at it that she had my class write letters to Klein protesting his education cuts.

That was when I pointed out that, no matter what Klein tried to cut spending on, somebody would be protesting and saying the spending was essential. I then asked my teacher what exactly Klein was supposed to cut to balance the budget.

I can’t remember my teacher’s answer. Looking back on it, though, I’m still bemused that as a 12-year-old kid I noticed something that seems to be generally overlooked. The fact is that, whenever government spending cuts are being discussed, lots of people are fine so long as somebody else’s ox gets gored. When their own share of the gravy is at stake, people tend to lose their enthusiasm for cuts.

Examples are common in Canadian politics. The Jean Chrétien Liberals are vilified on the right for the cuts they made to the military, while the left may not have minded as much. The left would have been more upset with Chrétien’s cuts to health care.

Here in St. Albert, our city council has tried to address public calls to keep spending under control, but the funding changes they’ve made have left non-profits with significant shortfalls. And of course, in Alberta, we all remember the controversies over Klein’s cuts.

The fact is that everyone in Canada benefits from public spending of some kind. Everyone benefits from good roads and public health care. Subsidies such as oil and gas incentives can create more jobs than the market by itself. The arts can generate spinoff economic benefits by spending money in smaller local economies. The taxes we pay are sometimes wasted or mismanaged, but a large chunk of them also pay for the things we’ve come to demand.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t seem to want to consider that there’s no free lunch either. Whereas politicians like Klein, Preston Manning and Mike Harris were up front with voters about the need for cuts, more recent politicians like Stephen Harper and Doug and Rob Ford have (falsely) claimed that they could balance the budget without cutting frontline services.

If we’re really serious about keeping budgets balanced, we may need to accept cuts to things we value.

Cutting arts or recreation spending often isn’t enough by itself, not when health care and education are some of our biggest expenses. Running deficits can help in the short term, but they lead to money wasted on debt-servicing charges. Raising taxes may be needed, but they cause their own problems, as lower-income St. Albert residents concerned about being able to afford their property taxes can tell you.

In the end, the right amount of taxes and spending may always be a moving target. Sometimes taxes and spending need to be increased, other times they need to be cut. And when those cuts need to come, almost everyone may have to give something up.

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