Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Ottawa Doing OK Financially, Other Levels of Government Face Trouble: Page

Newspaper article The Canadian Press

Ottawa Doing OK Financially, Other Levels of Government Face Trouble: Page

Article excerpt

Budget watchdog says Ottawa in better shape

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OTTAWA - Ottawa's cost-cutting measures have put it on a sound fiscal track for the future, but the provinces are left holding the bag, says Canada's budget watchdog.

Parliamentary Budget Officer Kevin Page's latest long-term projection on government finances suggests Ottawa has little to fear from the loss of revenue and rising costs tied to the aging population.

Page also judges the Canada Pension Plan and Quebec Pension Plan fiscally sound.

But the report, released Thursday, shows provinces and municipalities adding so much debt over the next 70 years or so they would resemble Greece and Italy if something is not done.

The report calculates that provinces and their municipalities have a fiscal gap of about two per cent of gross domestic product now -- or $36 billion -- and by 2086 will have debt worth 350 per cent of GDP. Meanwhile, Ottawa will be in a structural surplus.

Page cautions that this is a "what if" scenario and is not a forecast, but adds that governments need to be aware of the fiscal track they are following to ensure they make the right policy decisions.

"We're not saying in the report that the provinces have to panic and start taking measures right now," Page said in an interview.

"But in terms of dealing with aging demographics... if they wait five years the gap goes from something like two to 2.3 (per cent of GDP). If you wait 10 years it goes to 2.6. If you wait 20 years it's well over three per cent (and) it starts increasing exponentially."

In essence, the federal government has already taken "decisive" measures to address the fiscal gap, Page said.

While he has been critical of the Harper government in the past for failing to acknowledge it was in a structural deficit several years ago -- for which he took personal blow-back -- Page said Ottawa has acted to rectify the situation.

In the past two years, Finance Minister Jim Flaherty put a limit to growth on health transfers to provinces, essentially froze program spending for five years, and raised the age of eligibility for benefits under Old Age Security to 67 from 65.

The change in health transfers alone is responsible for about three-quarters of the provincial fiscal gap, Page says, or about $25 billion in fiscal room. …

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