Farm fuel rebate ‘on the menu’

After fighting for the farm fuel rebate at the budget table for years, a former agriculture minister has said that he believes increased taxation could have saved the rebate program.

But a current ministry spokesperson has said such an increase wasn’t an option, stating that “tough decisions” had to be made as a result.

After the 2013 budget was released on March 7, the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development experienced cuts to operational spending that totaled $281.9 million. Included in the cut was the six cent farm fuel rebate program that was forecast to have been a $32.5 million expense for the government in the past fiscal year.

Agriculture is Alberta’s second biggest industry, but with the cut of the farm fuel rebate program, more than 45,000 producers will be left to swallow the entire diesel bill for their heavy-duty equipment.

Photo courtesy of Kelsey SimpsonThis has sparked loud uproar in rural communities, some estimating that the rebate saved farmers $30 a day, per machine.

In an exclusive interview with the Calgary Journal, Jack Hayden – a retired PC MLA who served as the minister of agriculture and rural development between Jan. 2010 and Oct. 2011 said, “I fought this (cut) every year at the budget meetings and said it was too important to agriculture to get rid of.”

When asked what other options he thought the current agriculture minister had, Hayden said:

“I don’t know where there is an awful lot of room (for cuts), but my own personal feeling on it is that we are the lowest taxed province or territory in the entire country and not by a little bit, but by an awful lot. So I think I would have looked at some taxation values.”

Hayden added that the impact of cutting the farm fuel rebate program is significant loss for farmers and that “it definitely is going to have an effect” on agriculture in the province.

Hayden, a farmer from Endiang, Alta., has been on several government boards while in legislature including three ministerial positions:

Hayden said that the adjustments to tax rates in the province should have been made years ago to offset Alberta’s low taxes and high average incomes.

“That is quite a combination to not expect revenue problems somewhere down the road”.

Cathy Housdorff, press secretary at the Minister of Agriculture’s Office, said that under Premier Redford’s clear stance on not introducing new taxes or increasing of current ones, it was hard to find things to cut.

She said: “That’s the mandate all the ministers were operating under when looking at the budget. Minister Olson had to find savings and he had some tough decisions, he admits it was tough.”

Hayden said he doesn’t think many Albertans recognize the economic value of agriculture.

“We have ourselves in a pretty dangerous situation right now,” he said, noting that many agricultural ridings are currently represented by Wildrose MLAs rather than those from Alberta’s governing party.

Hayden said this is a definite problem when it comes to agriculture funding in the new budget.

“When it comes to those types of discussions around the budget table, it comes down to an old quote that I think is true, ‘if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu,’” said Hayden.

ksimpson@cjournal.ca