Lessons from the Rock: Oil Revenue, Government Spending, and Public Debt

Newfoundland and Labrador has experienced tremendous economic growth in the last decade. GDP per capita, for instance, has increased significantly and is currently above the national average, personal earnings are at record-high levels, and most importantly, the province is no longer a “have-not” province under the federal equalization programme.

Largely thanks to booming oil production, Newfoundland and Labrador has set a benchmark for short-term economic growth. Yet, with oil prices plummeting, the provincial government has implemented a freeze on discretionary spending and placed additional restrictions on public sector hiring. Given the recent expansion of the province’s public sector, however, it is important to consider whether spending restraint is achievable, or whether the provincial government’s decision is simply too little, and too late.

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In the past ten years, oil revenues have been a major staple of the province’s budget. The most recent budget, for instance, projected offshore royalties to bring in $2.4 billion, representing roughly 36.45 per cent of total projected revenue. Equipped with this enlarged, volatile revenue source, however, the government has continuously increased spending, rather than having enacted measures to improve the province’s position in the long-run, such as paying down the province’s public debt or creating a savings fund.

Between 2005 and 2011, for example, public sector employment increased by nearly 8,000 jobs–17 per cent in six years, which is a rate much larger than that of private sector job growth during the same period. Since 2010, however, offshore royalties have fallen and forecasts suggest a steady decline over the next twenty years. Ebbing royalty flows stem from the end of federalization equalization payments, as per the Atlantic Accord, and the falling value of oil production.

This combination of increased spending and faltering offshore revenues spell fiscal trouble for Newfoundland and Labrador. It is, therefore, important for the government to consider important cuts to the public service to ensure sustainability, lest the provincial government compound the public debt.

If recent history is any indication, it is unlikely that the provincial government will pursue substantive reforms. Instead, projected expenditures are set to increase in the next decade. But with oil prices hovering roughly $40 lower than the budgeted $105 USD per barrel, fiscal consolidation is highly important.

The government attempted to curb spending in 2013 by cutting nearly 1,200 public sector jobs, implementing a long-term public sector hiring freeze, and announcing plans to conduct an efficiency review of postsecondary institutions. But after public backlash, the provincial government reversed many of these decisions, such as lifting the hiring freeze. The efficiency review was also never completed. In fact, the most recent provincial budget features rising expenditures, adding $808 million to existing net debt.

Of course, cutting the public sector is politically sensitive and it requires serious deliberation, but if the provincial government chooses to base spending on volatile revenue sources, it also needs to cut expenditures when receipts fall. These jobs would be lost in the short-run, but in the long-run, consolidating the province’s fiscal situation will lower the public debt burden and consequent spinoff effects will provide benefits for every resident of the province.

Devin Drover is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing an undergraduate degree in economics at Memorial University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies

The Economics of Amalgamation

Small municipalities in Nova Scotia are asking tough existential questions. Earlier this year three towns voted to dissolve within a five week window: Springhill, Bridgetown, and Hantsport. Hantsport’s decision came as surprise, given their relatively healthy municipal finances, but as one supporter of the motion put it, the decision to amalgamate represented a “forward-looking” and “strategic” choice for the councilors. The trends foreseen by Hantsport come down to basic economics. In particular, two interrelated economic concepts stand out to explain why so many of Nova Scotia’s small towns are facing increasing cost pressures.

Economies of Scale

The kind of services provided by municipalities are all subject to economies of scale to varying degrees: as the scale of service grows, average or per capita costs fall until reaching a sweet spot, beyond which more scale creates rising average costs. Economies of scale are key to understanding the differing levels of market concentration by industry, and is similarly applicable to analyzing the size and concentration of political units.

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A simple way to demonstrate economies of scale in municipalities is to look at how per capita costs of basic services differ depending on scale. For example, providing a town in Nova Scotia with police and fire services, along with other administrative and counsel expenditures, costs on average $683 per capita annually. Scaling these same services up to the county level reduces the per-capita costs of every category, and cuts the annual total nearly in half to $350 per capita. Costs begin to rise again for CBRM and HRM, but never reach the highs of the town average.

These trends align with the academic literature on the subject. Most studies of Canadian municipalities find that economies of scale are mmaximized for police and fire services between a population of 20 and 50 thousand. Out-migration is, therefore, especially damaging to towns below this population range.

The Cost Disease

The cost disease is a concept that was first observed in connection to the arts. The economist William Baumol noted that musical performers were becoming more and more expensive to hire, despite little to no improvement in their productivity. One had to pay more in order to entice the musically skilled away from high productivity growth sectors of the time, such as manufacturing.

The cost disease is a defining feature of our times, as creeping changes in relative cost, and in particular rising costs of labour, force old practices and structures to break down. For instance, having home servants was once commonplace, but today is associated with luxury. For a similar reason, it’s often cheaper to buy a new home appliance than to call in a technician. In schools, teacher salaries continue to rise without matching productivity growth, too, leading to the infeasibility of the small school model and driving organizational consolidation.

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Residential Tax Burden = Total residential tax revenue ÷ Total dwelling units

The cost disease leads to similar consolidation pressures for municipalities. Nova Scotia’s municipal districts tend to have the fastest growing residential tax burdens for two reasons. First, relative to towns, they have smaller tax burdens to begin with, so a given increase implies a faster growth rate. In absolute terms, towns have the largest tax burdens by a long shot. Second, municipal districts have more mandatory expenditures, such as the education contribution, that they have little control over.

There are no short cuts to fighting the cost disease. The options can be grouped into two types: we can either accept much higher proportions of GDP going to cost diseased areas or we can find ways to adapt to changing cost structures by restructuring organizations, boosting labour productivity and finding labour-saving technologies.

Samuel Hammond is an AIMS on Campus Student Fellow who is pursuing a graduate degree in economics at Carleton University. The views expressed are the opinion of the author and not necessarily that of the Atlantic Institute for Market Studies