EDMONTON - Alberta politicians return to work Tuesday, but the opposition Wildrose party says it will be Thursday's 2012-13 budget that will lay out battleground for the upcoming election.
"This is going to be a session about who is really best able to manage the books," said Wildrose leader Danielle Smith in an interview.
"I think it's going to give a pretty clear indication of the direction (Premier Alison) Redford's Tories are going.
"I'm predicting more overspending, more deficits, and debt. They're going to blow through our savings, blow through our resource revenues, and they're going to be talking about ways to increase our taxes."
Smith said that, as has happened in the last two years, the Wildrose will present an alternative spending document.
"We believe in balanced budgets. We believe in value for tax dollars. We believe in restraining year over year spending growth, and making sure we have a capital plan we can afford and cutting wasteful spending," she said.
"(Albertans) want their government to deliver on the social programs they value, but they also want them to do it within a budget."
Redford has already announced the province will run up a fifth consecutive deficit in the upcoming fiscal year but plans to have the books back in the black by 2013.
There will also be a new way to build budgets.
Deputy Premier Doug Horner announced last week that the flagship Bill One of the sitting will be a law to move the government to results-based — or zero-based — budgeting within three years.
Under zero-based budgeting, the government does not take the previous year's budget and add or subtract money from existing line items.
Instead, officials wipe everything out and start from scratch. They decide what the priorities are for the year and then build a budget to suit it.
Horner told reporters last week the government will stay fiscally sound, but won't install an overall spending cap or limit spending to, say, the rate of growth plus inflation.
Horner said "budgeting to a number" would be self-defeating for a budget that is trying to reach targets in program and service delivery.
"He's wrong. There's just no way around it. The No. 1 goal of a government has to be to deliver on the priorities of Albertans, but to do it with a balanced budget.
"Because she (Redford) doesn't want to set any spending limitation law, there's a danger you might end with more spending rather than less."
The level of spending is already at record levels. The government is on track to spend $39.9 billion in the current fiscal year with a deficit of $3.1 billion.
Forty-billion-dollars in spending is within sight, said Smith
"It's a pretty eye-popping milestone.
"We know we're spending more on social services and program spending than virtually any other province in virtually every area.
"And yet when I talk to Albertans they say, 'Where is all the money going?' because they don't see it getting to the front lines."
The government is also expected to face renewed criticism for wasteful spending in the run up to the sitting.
Earlier this month, cabinet ministers went on a taxpayer-funded tour to hear from Albertans at a cost of $100,000.
Tory backbencher Lloyd Snelgrove, long disenchanted with the direction of caucus under Redford, labelled the exercise a cynical photo-op and quit to cross the floor and sit as an independent.
That was followed up last week by a $70,000 taxpayer-funded Tory caucus retreat to a Rocky Mountain resort near the ski-getaway town of Jasper.
Critics, including the Wildrose, noted that Tory election candidates who are not in caucus were in Jasper as well. While those candidates paid their own way, critics said their presence turned the Jasper trip into a publicly-funded Tory party election readiness session.
It also led to some spirited Tweet-fighting between the Wildrose and Redford's chief of staff, Stephen Carter.
"How's the powder today?" Brock Harrison, the Wildrose caucus communications chief, asked Carter on Twitter Friday morning.
"Started meetings at 7 a.m. Worked last night until midnight," Carter answered back, adding that despite the $70,000 outlay, the PCs will be the only one to return some their caucus money to the treasury this year.
"Great," Tweeted Harrison. "You can put it towards the deficit."
The Wildrose has just four seats in the 83-seat legislature, three of them Tory government caucus floor-crossers.
But the right-of-centre party has been running a solid second to the Redford's team in public opinion polling.
And, like the Tories and NDP, it has almost all its candidates picked and ready to go for a 28-day election campaign that must by law be called sometime between now and May 3.