October 21st, 2020

No real advantage for Alberta public-sector workers, SACPA told

By Mabell, Dave on December 20, 2019.

University of Lethbridge economics professor Richard Mueller speaks on public sector workers during the weekly meeting of the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs. Herald photo by Ian Martens @IMartensHerald

Dave Mabell

Lethbridge Herald


Public-sector workers in Alberta are no better off than in Canada’s other large provinces.

Salaries paid to teachers, social workers and employees in other government-related roles are very close to the national average, a Lethbridge audience heard Thursday. And with the economic slowdown, pointed out economics professor Richard Mueller, public-sector employees as well as those working for private companies have seen their income stagnate in the face of ongoing inflation.

Because Alberta industries fuelled a high-cost economy for so long, the University of Lethbridge professor added, federal government employees may pay a price for living in Alberta if their salaries remain the same as in lower-cost provinces.

“We’ve had it pretty good here for a number of years,” Mueller told his audience at the Southern Alberta Council on Public Affairs.

The province’s population has increased by more than five per cent in recent years, he said, with the number of public employees increasing at the same rate to meet the demands of growth.

With Canada’s energy industry slumping, Alberta’s unemployment rate has increased. But Mueller said Albertans in both private and public employment overall have been receiving an average of seven to 12 per cent more than other Canadians.While Albertans’ taxes have been lower, however, their cost-of-living factors are higher – particularly in the two major cities.

By comparison, he pointed out, residents of Quebec pay higher taxes – including close to 10 per cent in provincial sales tax – to support more social programs. And as Mueller’s charts showed, they also pay Quebec’s public employees more.

Now, with the Alberta government making budget cuts and prompting layoffs, Mueller said some Albertans are being encouraged to move east. Health officials from Prince Edward Island, he noted, have come here in hopes of recruiting nurses.

Asked about the impact of a five-per-cent sales tax in Alberta – potentially the lowest in the country -Mueller said it would allow the province to balance its budget without cutting support for health care, education and other public services. A surplus could be added to the Heritage Fund.

In reality, he said, Alberta’s governments haven’t had a balanced budget since the 1960s. They’ve counted on oil and gas revenues to provide much of their income – and they’ve run up deficits when energy-related revenues failed to meet predictions.

On Jan. 9, the next SACPA audience is expected to hear another perspective on Alberta’s public services and salaries. After the two-week break, the speaker will be Lethbridge West MLA Shannon Phillips.

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