07 February 2006

Equalization changes: Williams and Harper/Sullivan compared

Provincial finance minister Loyola Sullivan is claiming that Stephen Harper's proposals for Equalization reform are perfect for this province but his claim suggests that he and premier Danny Williams are once more at odds over the province's finances.

Their last public conflict came in June 2004 during the offshore discussions when Sullivan backed Stephen Harper in preference to the provincial government's position, represented by Danny Williams. That's the same basic problem again, but it certainly isn't clear that Loyola Sullivan, whose love of digits borders on being a pathological condition, is correct in his math.

Given the importance of these issues to the province and in light of the coming federal-provincial negotiations on federal transfers, a frank assessment of the merits of the province's position will be necessary if the general public are to fully appreciate the issues and the implications.

The following calculations are based on the province's mid-year fiscal statement and the current Equalization fiscal capacity determinations, using 2004/05 as a typical year to demonstrate the impacts of the two proposed approaches to Equalization.

Note: These calculations are approximations based on provincial budget estimates and estimates of per capita fiscal capacity. A more detailed analysis would be needed to produce a definitive comparison.

Danny Williams' position

In his letter to the federal party leaders, Danny William proposed a simple approach to the Equalization formula that would increase provincial transfers from Ottawa and give full effect to the Equalization offsets in both the Atlantic Accord (1985) and the January 2005 offshore deal with Paul Martin.

Under the current Equalization system, Newfoundland and Labrador would cease to qualify for Equalization within the next fiscal year and therefore would be entitled to small, declining offsets. The total value of the 2005 agreement for example would likely never exceed the $2.0 billion advanced already.

In his letter to federal party leaders, Williams proposed that Equalization be based on a formula which includes all provincial sources of revenue in calculating per capita fiscal capacity based on a 10 province standard. As a result, Alberta's economic performance would produce a significant cash result for this province. Williams also proposed that debt servicing costs be considered when calculating entitlements.

The most obvious impact of the Williams approach would be to raise the national per capita fiscal capacity above the one currently resulting from the five province standard. In 2004/05, the national standard per capita capacity would have been approximately $6600 (10 prov.) versus $6200 (five prov.) Newfoundland and Labrador's per capita fiscal capacity was $4900.

This would have provided $878, 900, 000 in Equalization based on a population of 517, 000 people.

Since Newfoundland and Labrador would likely remain an Equalization receiving province over the entire 16 years of the offshore deals, the province would receive Equalization offsets for its oil royalties equal to 100% of those revenues. Oil and gas revenues in that period will exceed all other non-renewable revenues.

This would have produced an Equalization offset of approximately $234, 420, 000 in 2004/05, for a total of $1, 113, 320,000.

That does not include the province's non-renewable resource revenues which the provincial government collects and retains in full.

The Harper/Sullivan Approach

The federal Conservative proposal for Equalization would calculate provincial entitlements on a 10 province standard but without using revenues from non-renewable resources.

The most obvious impact of this approach would be to keep the national per capita fiscal standard at or below the current level established using five provinces. Newfoundland and Labrador's fiscal capacity would be reduced by the amount of natural resource revenues, which for the purpose of this example will be estimated at $248, 845, 000 or $481 per capita.

This produces an Equalization entitlement of $920,777, 000. 1

Since offshore oil and gas revenues are already offset under this model, no further transfers would flow to the province under either the 1985 or 2005 offshore agreements.


1. The major advantage of the Williams approach for the 2004/05 sample year is the impact of the offshore Equalization offset agreements. This produces revenue over and above Equalization entitlements since they compare the province's per capita capacity without offshore royalties to its entitlement under the 10 province standard that includes Alberta's natural resource revenues.

2. It should be noted that in 2004/05, mining revenue was slightly more than $14, 000, 000. Since no one has released provincial revenue figures from Voisey's Bay production there is no way, at this point, of determining the longer term impact of the Harper/Sullivan approach compared to the Williams proposal.

3. That said, as provincial offshore revenues increase, the level of additional offset from the 1985 and 2005 accords increase directly for the full 16 years of the 2005 deal. Unless mining royalties were to exceed the considerable sums coming from offshore oil and gas in the next decade, the 1985 and 2005 agreements should deliver their full potential. This should more than make up for any Equalization declines owing to growth in mining royalties under the Williams proposal.

4. Neither the Williams nor the Harper/Sullivan proposal offsets the impact of a major renewable resource revenue development such as construction of the Lower Churchill.

5. The Williams proposal offers the potential for additional revenue from adjustments related to debt servicing costs that are not contained in the Harper/Sullivan approach. These figures are not included here since they are unknown and cannot be calculated. Williams did not make any suggestions as to what weight he expected to be given to debt servicing costs in making the Equalization calculations.

6. Overall, it is incumbent on Loyola Sullivan to make public his own departments calculations of the financial impacts of both the Williams and the Harper/Sullivan models. Sullivan's public pronouncements to date have been vague, bordering on the vacuous.

His references to an "Atlantic Accord forever" smack of some communications director's idea of clever sound bites rather than a substantive appraisal based on disclosed evidence.


The following conclusions can be made:

- The Williams proposal is consistent with the general approach to Equalization taken across the country to date, in that it is formula driven and uses as many sources of revenue as possible to accurately reflect actual provincial fiscal capacity.

- The Williams approach is supported by most provincial governments and is likely to gain wider support.

- The Harper/Sullivan approach would see at least four provinces facing significant decreases in Equalization entitlements. As a result, this approach would be more difficult to implement. Changes to Equalization would require unanimous agreement of all provinces.

- The Harper/Sullivan approach is designed to reduce federal government transfers to provinces. Irrespective of the rationales offered, the primary goal of the Harper/Sullivan approach is to lower federal government transfers. Before the election, there had been some discussion that the Harper administration would address the supposed vertical fiscal imbalance by reducing federal taxation and thereby allowing the provinces to increase their own direct revenues by raising taxes.

The Harper/Sullivan Equalization changes give the federal government the ability to do exactly that by reducing federal expenditures or at least reducing the rates of increase to allow the program to function on smaller annual expenditures than might otherwise be the case..


1 [6200-(4900-481) X 517, 000]