This gorilla is not hiding in the closet.

It’s rampaging through the whole house, in the kitchen, the living room, in every bathroom.

Since 2008, for 10 years (with one exception), the Alberta government has spent more money than it has taken in.

The situation has gone from bad to worse.

From $1 billion in the red in 2008, to $6 to $8 billion per year earlier in this decade, to $10 billion-plus in the last two years.

The accumulated deficit – the total outstanding provincial debt – is expected to hit $45 billion this year. That’s close to what the Alberta government will spend in the entire upcoming 2018-19 fiscal year!

Quebec and Ontario have drowned in debt for decades, but, hey, we’re catching up.

On a debt-per-capita, Alberta will be at Quebec’s level by 2023, Ontario’s by 2024.

We used to have oil and gas “non-renewable resource” royalties flowing in – $10 billion a year.

Then came the Great Oil Price Crash of 2014.

The government’s non-renewable resource revenue for the current 2017-18 fiscal year has dropped to $3.1 billion.

The Notley government has kept borrowing money,  maintaining spending at pre-recession levels. Premier Rachel Notley is hoping – praying – for a return to oil-boom prices to pay down this debt. Today, however, nobody expects oil to return to its former oil-boom prices. 

On Wednesday, four pundits gathered at an Economics Society of Northern Alberta get-together.

The stated topic was the “pros and cons of a sales tax in Alberta.”

The real topic was “how can Alberta increase its revenues (or decrease its spending) to get the provincial budget back in balance AND start paying off the debt.”

Nobody had a clear, crisp direct answer.

Other than the Canadian Taxpayer Federation’s Colin Craig, they all thought a sales tax was a good idea.  But, they all agreed, in Alberta “PST” stands for the “Political Suicide Tax”.

A recent Alberta Federation of Labour (AFL) meeting had a long discussion on a sales tax. “We had a persuasive presentation, a good debate,” said Gil McGowan, that organization’s long-time president. “In the end, the motion was defeated.

“It’s just not in the DNA of Albertans. A sales tax was seen as regressive. This government is a friend to the AFL. We did not want to hang an albatross around its neck.”

As the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation representative, Craig stuck to the standard right-wing political argument that it’s an over-spending problem, not a revenue problem.

Which, of course, was strenuously denied by McGowan and fellow “progressive” political economy lecturer Elizabeth Smythe of Concordia University.

As politically-neutral economist Bev Dahlby pointed out, Alberta is so deeply in debt that even Ralph Klein-like 20% spending cuts would not make much difference, certainly not without added taxation.

The debate went on and on, round and round in circles.

No sales tax, but no other alternative made any sense.

About the best this bunch could come up were euphemistically named new taxes, such as a health/education “levy” or “contribution.” Remember that Premier Ed Stelmach did away with individual and family health-care premiums 10 years ago.

Recent political history, however, tells us the probable solution to successive deficits.

Today’s provincial government will do as so many Canadian governments have done: Keep spending until a bonafide financial crisis hits, i.e. lenders stop lending to the government.

When there’s no choice, when financial disaster literally lies around the corner, the government of the day will impose every possible austerity measure – wage rollbacks, lay-offs, higher taxes, more taxes – until the deficit dragon is slain. Then the cycle will begin anew.

By 1993, the federal government of Canada had seen 27 years of consecutive deficits. Debt had risen to a dangerous 67.1% of the gross domestic product. Thirty cents of every tax dollar went to debt servicing. Interest rates were jumping. The Canadian dollar was sinking like a rock.

Former Prime Minister Jean Chretien and then-Finance Minister Paul Martin were forced into action. From 1995 to 2001, government spending was slashed. The federal government posted 11 annual surpluses. By 2005, Canada was back on a stable financial footing … and now Justin Trudeau’s government is firing up the deficit cycle all over again.

In the early ’90s, Saskatchewan NDP Premier Roy Romanow lowered his province’s looming debt. Alberta Premier Ralph Klein reduced the Alberta deficit from $23 billion to zero, through massive spending cuts, from 1994 to 2004. Then the cycle began again.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

But desperation is not yet in play.