EDMONTON - The final sitting of the Alberta legislature began Tuesday with Premier Alison Redford promising to review tax rates — and opponents pouncing to say that means taxes are going up.
Redford's government, in the speech from the throne read aloud in the chamber by Lt-.Gov. Don Ethell, said it's folly to budget on the capricious crests and troughs of oil money and that a more standardized approach is needed.
But first, said Ethell, there will be a comprehensive review.
"This will include reviews of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust and Sustainability funds, capital and infrastructure projects, gaming revenue, our operating budget and income taxes, along with reviews of existing programs," he said.
Opposition Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, whose party is campaigning on a platform of balanced budgets and fiscal accountability, said the writing is on the wall.
"After months of speculation about how the PCs are going to raise our taxes, we now have a pretty clear road map," said Smith.
"Income taxes are going up. It was very clear in the throne speech they're going to be looking at ways of increasing revenue. We think that's the wrong way of tackling the problem of deficits."
The Alberta government has rung up four consecutive multibillion-dollar deficits, with a fifth expected when Finance Minister Ron Liepert delivers the 2012-13 spending document on Thursday.
Redford said income taxes are a necessary part of any review and told reporters that looking at income taxes isn't the same as raising them.
"We're going to review the whole fiscal framework," said Redford. "And I'm quite open to that discussion. I have no presupposition on what (the tax review) will be or whether it will even be part of the conversation."
Redford's fiscal bona fides are expected to be the focus of opposition attacks as all parties prepare for the general election that will be called after the budget is passed.
Redford's Tories are leading opinion polls but have been criticized for failing to reverse the spending of her predecessor Ed Stelmach.
Under Stelmach, multibillion-dollar surpluses turned to multibillion-dollar deficits after the bottom fell out of the global markets in 2008.
Critics like the Wildrose, however, say the Tories can no longer blame external woes for problems in Alberta's export-based economy. They point to the fact that even though oil, Alberta's economic driver, is pushing US$100 a barrel, the province will come close to spending a record $40 billion this fiscal year on a population of 3.7 million and come up more than $3 billion in the red.
To address concerns, Redford tabled in the legislature Tuesday a bill to move all government budgeting to zero-based principles.
Such budgeting means politicians and their officials don't simply add or subtract from existing line items. Rather, the entire budget from the year before is scrapped and rebuilt from the ground up to make sure all spending matches stated goals.
Smith said without a hard cap on spending, zero-budgeting is worth zero.
"It could actually result in an increase in spending," she said.
"If you don't actually have a spending cap, when you do a review of your programs you can find out that the bureaucracy is asking to increase the amount of spending."
Deputy Premier Doug Horner, who is also in charge of spending as president of Treasury Board, has said the government won't put in a hard cap and "budget to a number" because that would undermine the principle of matching dollars to program goals and outcomes.
Ethell also announced other initiatives to manage an economy that is growing but also putting strains on programs and services.
He announced the government will be "enhancing" post-secondary institutions to increase the number of highly skilled workers.
There are also plans for improvements on the health front. Multidisciplinary teams of health professionals are to help patients in family-care clinics in three pilot projects to start this spring.
Local health advisory councils are to get a greater say on front-line care in their communities.
And a new northern development strategy is to help that region's programs and infrastructure keep pace with the rapid growth of the oilsands.
The government also promised renewed partnership with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's government, including work on a shared national energy plan.
NDP Leader Brian Mason said the throne speech was a disappointment that didn't address concrete concerns, such as high power bills and a scarcity of long-term care beds for seniors.
"There isn't anything there but a list of good intentions," said Mason.
"(The Tories) have their head in the sand and their feet in the clouds."
Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said now is not the time to be tinkering with health-care pilot projects when surgery and emergency care wait times are at unacceptable levels.
"It's time for action," said Sherman.
"It's time to fix the fact that Albertans are waiting longer than ever for life and death care in emergency departments, for surgeries, to get into long-term care facilities, and to get a family doctor."
This week, the government will also introduce as Bill 2 legislation to overhaul the framework of laws governing kindergarten to Grade 12 education.