06 June 2006

Equalization: the Experts Report; Williams reacts

Some months ago, we predicted a war among the province's over Equalization reform.

There have been some skirmishes as the forces gathered, most notably Ralph Klein's ludicrous claim that if Ottawa touched Alberta's natural resource revenues, then Alberta would leave the Equalization program. The only thing this bluster demonstrated was that Klein has no idea how Equalization works.

A few more shots were fired Monday with the release of the report by the Expert Panel on Equalization and Territorial Financing. Premier Danny Williams doesn't like the report at all, claiming Newfoundland and Labrador would lose $200 million annually in Equalization payments.

In an effort to discredit the report before Newfoundlanders and Labradorians had a chance to read it, Williams described the report as having "Ralph Goodale's fingerprints all over it". He called the report nonsense, and true to form, some commentators are backing Williams with nothing more than Williams condemnation.

Still, Williams insisted he was confident that Prime Minister Stephen Harper would do the right thing and not implement the report. He gave no reasons to justify his optimism.

The panel on Equalization and Territorial financing, appointed in 2005, comprised five experts in federal provincial fiscal relations. It was chaired by Al O'Brien, the former deputy finance minister in Alberta and included Fred Gorbet (Strategy Solutions), Robert Lacroix (CIRANO), Elizabeth Parr-Johnson (Parr Johnson Consultants) and Mike Percy (U of A Business School).

Their report is a comprehensive survey of the current issues in Equalization and includes recommendations based on almost two years of consultations. There is a simple description of the Equalization system itself and the basic objectives of the program. If nothing else, the comprehensive nature of the report reflects the considerable abilities and varied perspectives of the five panelists who authored it.

The Government of Newfoundland and Labrador did not make a submission to the panel during its consultations. New Brunswick and Saskatchewan did.

In the section on resources, the panel recommended two things in particular that are of interest to Newfoundland and Labrador.

First, the panel recommended using actual revenues to calculate entitlements, as opposed to the current estimating system. This creates a problem since it penalizes provinces who actually collect royalties below the national average and rewards those provinces taxing above the average.

Second, the panel recommended shielding half of resource revenues from the calculations, irrespective of whether those resources are renewable (like hydro power) or non-renewable (such as oil and gas). This was felt to be an acceptable compromise between total inclusion which was seen as not giving provinces benefit of the resource development and the unfairness of full exclusion which would create a situation in which some provinces had considerable revenues that were not being taken into consideration when calculating entitlements.

There are two specific sections of the report that will affect Newfoundland and Labrador. First, the panel recommends the inclusion of all resource revenues (renewable and non-renewable). There is also a specific recommendation on hydroelectric revenues which would collapse the existing approach into one using the actual revenues. The rationale is excerpted below.
13. All resource revenues should be treated in the same way.

The Panel sees no reason to distinguish between different types of resource revenues. Therefore, the treatment of all resource revenues should be the same whether those revenues arise from oil and gas, onshore or offshore resources, forestry, potash, other minerals, or hydroelectricity.

The measurement of fiscal capacity related to hydroelectricity deserves special mention. In most cases, provinces with substantial hydroelectricity resources have chosen to develop and distribute those resources through Crown corporations. For the most part, provinces have also chosen to provide electricity to their residents at low prices rather than charge full prices. Instead of capturing economic rent and generating government revenues, they give their residents the direct benefit of lower-priced electricity.

Under the current [Representative Tax System] RTS approach, a portion of provincial revenues from hydroelectricity is counted in one tax base (the water rentals base), while a portion of the profits of Crown corporations paid to provincial governments is considered in the same way as profits of private corporations. Some have suggested that this approach underestimates the revenue-generating capacity of provinces in cases where they charge less than the full economic value of the electricity.

The Panel considered a number of options for the treatment of hydroelectricity in the Equalization formula. Consistent with its position that all resource revenues should be treated in the same way, the current water power rentals base should be folded into a single resource revenue base and measured by actual revenues. In addition, the Panel recommends that the remittances from Crown corporations involved in resource extraction and development, including hydroelectricity Crown corporations, should be included as part of a province‚’s resource revenues and not as business income.
It is unclear what impact this change will have on Newfoundland and Labrador in the current situation or in a situation involving theLowerr Churchill development. Certainly the use of actual revenues, as opposed to estimates, eliminates the problem identified and resolved in the 1982 federal-provincial agreement on Upper Churchill revenues.

Second, the panel included a specific recommendation dealing with the offshore transfer agreements with Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia in 2005. There is also a sample calculation of how the cap would work. This is worth quoting in its entirety so there can be no confusion.
14. A cap should be implemented to ensure that, as a result of Equalization, no receiving province ends up with a fiscal capacity higher than that of the lowest non-receiving province.

Consistent with the Panel'’s principles, Equalization should provide equity among provinces. However, it should not result in less wealthy provinces having a greater fiscal capacity than provinces that do not receive Equalization.

The Panel'’s recommendations for including 50 percent of resource revenues in the Equalization formula will benefit receiving provinces with resource revenues. However, in some scenarios, a receiving province like British Columbia, Newfoundland and Labrador, or Saskatchewan could end up with a higher fiscal capacity after Equalization than a non-receiving province like Ontario. That runs counter to a fundamental principle of equity that should underlie any changes to the Equalization program.

Consequently, the Panel recommends that a fiscal capacity cap be implemented. To determine a province'’s post-Equalization fiscal capacity and whether or not it is entitled to Equalization, the Panel's view is that 100 percent of a province'’s resource revenues should be included in calculating a province'’s fiscal capacity for the purposes of the cap. If a province'’s resulting fiscal capacity is higher than that of the lowest non-receiving province, then its entitlement to Equalization would be capped. While some might suggest that less than 100 percent of resource revenues should be included in the cap for a variety of reasons, in the absence of reliable and comparable information, the Panel'’s view is that including 100 percent of resource revenues in determining a province'’s fiscal capacity for purposes of calculating the cap is appropriate.

The Panel understands that implementation of its recommended cap is complicated by the existence of separate Offshore Accords for Newfoundland and Labrador and Nova Scotia. In the case of Nova Scotia, its fiscal capacity continues to be lower than the lowest non-receiving province, so the cap does not apply. But in the case of Newfoundland and Labrador, the combination of resource developments in the province along with the Panel'’s proposed revisions to the Equalization formula mean that Newfoundland and Labrador'’s fiscal capacity (including own-source revenues, payments from Offshore Accords and Equalization) is expected to be higher than the lowest non-receiving province.

In the Panel'’s view, this contradicts a fundamental principle. It is not within the Panel'’s mandate to suggest that the Offshore Accords should be changed. However, we believe that the principle should be upheld. If Newfoundland and Labrador'’s fiscal capacity after Equalization is higher than the lowest non-receiving province, the cap should apply regardless of the Offshore Accords and the province should not receive Equalization payments that put them above the cap. The Panel understands that, under their 2005 Accord, Newfoundland and Labrador is protected from losses in Equalization payments. It'’s up to the federal government to determine how this should be resolved. In the Panel'’s view, the principles of Equalization should not be compromised nor should the Equalization program be adjusted to accommodate the Offshore Accords.
Would this approach cause a reduction in Newfoundland and Labrador's Equalization entitlements? The answer is almost certainly yes in the medium-term, once the Equalization system's transitional provisions come into force. Newfoundland and Labrador's entitlement in the next two to three years will decline in any event as its own source revenues grow from offshore oil, mining and other growth in the economy. This would likely amount to $100 to $200 million annually over the same time frame noted by Premier Williams on Monday, even without the expert panel's recommendations being implemented.

However, as the expert panel notes throughout the report, Equalization is supposed to decline as a province's own-source revenue grows and ultimately surpasses the national average to receive the federal transfer.

This notion is one of the fundamental premises contained in the 1985 Atlantic Accord and, to a large measure reaffirmed by the temporary nature of the transfers envisioned by the 2005 offshore accord. Premier Williams is simply wrong when he claims that there was a flaw in the 1985 accord on Equalization or that the accord was subsequently misapplied. He has been wrong before and the admission of one of his fundamental misrepresentations - that the province actually lost oil and gas revenues - is contained in the opening clause of the 2005 offshore deal.

There is no surprise that the Accord offsets were included in this panel report. The Bond Papers noted January 2006 that it would be difficult to keep these Equalization-related payments off the table.

As well, Bond Papers noted in February 2006 that Danny Williams proposed a different approach to Equalization in late 2005 that was at odds with the Harper proposal to remove non-renewable resources from the calculation of entitlements.
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.
There is no explanation as to why Premier Williams appears to have abandoned his own proposal which are essentially similar to the recommendation of the expert panel to include all resource revenues.