The province’s economy is currently doing better than many expected, so the Quebec government will have some wiggle room in drafting this year’s budget, set to be unveiled on Tuesday.
What does that mean? More Quebecers are employed with good jobs than some economists had forecast. Crucially, for Finance Minister Eric Girard’s budget math, that also means those people are paying more taxes and fewer people are relying on social safety net programs.
That is welcome news for a government that has foreshadowed both spending increases and tax relief in its upcoming budget — “having your cake and eating it too,” according to some economists and political analysts.
It’s a strategy economists usually warn against. When the economy is going well, they say, governments shouldn’t necessarily offer tax relief but should instead take advantage of increased tax revenues to pay down debt — which Quebec has a lot of, some of which is due to recent expensive COVID-19 and inflation relief plans.
But that isn’t what the budget is likely to show on Tuesday. As usual, the finance minister has been close-lipped about the contents of the documents, but Girard did say that the government will stick to the commitments it made during last year’s election campaign — which likely means more spending, not less, along with a tax cut that some are criticizing as untimely.
So, here’s what you can expect:
One controversial promise that the CAQ has made is a pledge to cut taxes by one per cent for the two lowest tax brackets.
If the government comes through on that promise, which Girard has suggested it will, that would save a taxpayer earning $55,000 a year $378, but it will save higher-income earners even more.
During the election, Legault said Quebecers making $80,000 a year would save $630 in taxes per year.
It’s a proposal that has some economists raising their eyebrows.
Nearly 35 per cent of Quebec’s population will not earn enough income to benefit from the tax break according to l’Institut de recherche et d’informations socioéconomiques (IRIS).
“It would be an unfair tax cut because it would mainly favour taxpayers with higher incomes,” said Guillaume Hébert, a researcher with IRIS, in an interview.
The government has said the $2-billion measure would be paid for by the government reducing its payments to the Generations Fund, a rainy day fund.
That money, IRIS contends, would be better spent in the public sector, in the health or education system, for example.
The timing of the tax cuts, when the government is handling debt from COVID-19 relief measures and is promising to increase spending, is also causing concern.
“At some point, you want to make these promises, that’s fine,” said Moshe Lander, a senior lecturer in economics at Concordia University, “but it has to be accompanied by government spending cuts elsewhere or higher taxes, not lower taxes.”
But that isn’t what most observers expect.
In the lead-up to the 2022 election, where the CAQ secured a second four-year mandate, François Legault’s party made lots of expensive promises — $29.6-billion worth.
Not all of those promises are expected to appear in this year’s budget, but spending increases are likely.
“I think that they will increase health-care spending quite significantly and I think education is a major priority,” said Daniel Béland, the director of the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada. “So it’s a government that likes to be popular, right? [Legault] doesn’t like to bring bad news.”
It’s a combination, Béland said, of tax reductions and spending increases that appears to makes more sense as a political decision than an economic one.
It’s also a combination that would lead to a greater budget deficit — which happens when the government is spending more on programs than it receives from taxes.
But that deficit, Lander predicts, will be lower than expected – possibly around the $5-billion mark. A lower deficit than expected, however, deserves no praise because it is coming because of economic prosperity that the government did not engineer, he said.
“When a government tries to take credit for that and says that, you know, the deficit is smaller, they don’t deserve a pat on the back,” said Lander.
The smaller deficit, however, will allow them to couch the budget in optimistic language and a commitment to get back to budgetary equilibrium at some point down the line, Lander predicts.
“They’re gonna create the magic act of smaller deficit than expected on a path to balancing budget while at the same time cutting taxes and raising spending.”