Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci presents a new pair of soccer shoes to 11-year-old Yusef Moalim during a pre-budget photo opportunity in Edmonton, Alta., on Tuesday March 14, 2017. The new soccer shoes represent a more affordable lifestyle for families with the upcoming budget. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson

Politicians spar over government spending ahead of Alberta budget

Alberta on track for a $10.8-billion deficit

EDMONTON — The Wildrose party says with the government signalling more spending coming in Thursday’s budget, Alberta needs a panel of steely-eyed critics to cut costs, similar to the TV show “Dragons’ Den.”

“Most politicians, we all think we’re the smartest guy in the room but most of the time in fact we’re not. We need to bring in experts to help us with this,” Opposition MLA Derek Fildebrandt said Wednesday.

His proposed fiscal reform commission would be a mix of politicians, public service and business experts similar to a program run by the former federal Conservative government, he said.

“I sort of envision it somewhat almost as a fiscal “Dragons’ Den” where government programs, where the way we are doing things, they’re all going to have to be challenged,” said Fildebrandt.

“They’re going to have to justify why they are there in the first place and how they’re doing things and are they doing it the best possible way for the best possible value to taxpayers.”

Fildebrandt said a Wildrose government could save $2.6 billion this year in operational savings, including $1.2 billion by cutting the broad-based carbon tax.

But Premier Rachel Notley called the concept nonsensical and demeaning to those affected.

“The Wildrose want to turn Albertans’ future into a reality TV show,” Notley told the legislature during question period.

“Who would run the gauntlet of their show? Children with special needs? Long-term care patients? Vulnerable children? Parents and students?

“How about (the TV show) “Survivor?” Tune in next week to see who the Wildrose kicks off the island. Will it be seniors? Will it be students? Will it be people in hospital? Who are they gonna throw off the island?”

“Albertans are going to throw the NDP government off the island in the next election,” Wildrose Leader Brian Jean retorted.

All opposition parties say it’s time Notley’s government injects fiscal reality into budget deficits that have ballooned as falling oil revenues sap billions of dollars out of the bottom line.

In the fiscal year that ends this month, Alberta is on track for a $10.8-billion deficit to pay for capital and operating expenses against $42.9 billion in revenue.

Ceci has said Thursday’s budget will include a similar commitment to front-line spending and a bottom-line in deficit.

Ceci said it’s counterproductive to penalize families with service cuts while oil rebounds and Alberta gets back on its feet.

Fildebrandt said the government is not solving the problem, it’s creating a bigger one for other Albertans to solve, and will pay for it with debilitating interest payments down the road.

“We’re borrowing a quarter of the budget,” said Fildebrandt. “And if you’re borrowing a quarter of the budget, you’re not protecting front-line services. You’re jeopardizing them.”

Alberta is on track to exceed $30 billion in debt this year against $19.7 billion in the Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Debt payments exceed $1 billion this year.

Ceci promised this week that the budget, will “bend the curve” on spending.

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark said it can’t be a shallow bend.

“The NDP’s budget trajectory leads to unsustainable levels of debt,” said Clark. “At some point in the not-too-distant future, a government is going to have to impose massive cutbacks or find substantial new revenues or both.

“It is irresponsible the path that they’re on.”

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