02/10/2012 01:34 EST | Updated 04/11/2012 05:12 EDT

Alberta Wildrose budget would have surplus, put some projects on hold

EDMONTON - The leader of the main rival party in Alberta says the province's budget could be balanced immediately — even with spending increases — if the government would delay hospital and museum construction for one year.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, who presented her party's alternative budget on Friday, said there's no reason to run a deficit since oil is trading at historically high rates.

"There is a caucus in the legislature that doesn't view the budget as a pre-election vote-buying tool," said Smith.

"There is a caucus that believes in balanced budgets, not as a political mantra, but simply as the right way to govern."

Smith was reacting to the 2012-13 budget presented Thursday by Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservative government.

The budget boosts spending to a record $41.1 billion. Operational spending is going up 6.9 per cent — with most of the extra money going to health, education and the needy.

The budget anticipates the price of oil, the province's staple revenue, will remain high at almost US$100 a barrel. It also takes $3.7 billion from the Sustainability Fund to wrestle the deficit to $886 million.

The legislature will now debate the budget, which will probably pass next month. Redford has promised to call an election after that.

Smith said the Wildrose plan would leave the budget with a $16-million cash surplus.

Smith said her party, too, would hike spending, but only by 2.5 per cent. The extra cash would be used to fund front-line care in critical areas.

There would be 1,425 more teachers, 1,000 new senior-care support workers, 1,000 more nursing and health jobs and 300 more police officers, sheriffs and prison guards.

Payments under the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped would go up by one-third to $1,588 a month, matching the promise in the Tory budget.

The spending would be paid for, said Smith, by cutting "government waste" and by extending three-year construction plans to four years on non-core projects such as new health centres in Edmonton and Calgary.

Smith said priority projects would plow ahead, including construction of 14 new schools, twinning the highway to the oilsands hub of Fort McMurray, and more work on ring roads in Edmonton and Calgary.

But, she said, the government would review how quickly to proceed on Calgary's new South Health Campus and the second phase of the Edmonton Clinic.

The projects would not be scrapped but mothballed for a year. The idea, said Wildrose house leader Rob Anderson, makes sense given the government is scrambling to fill health staffing vacancies as it is.

"Until we get the nurses and doctors that we need to serve Albertans, there's no point in building new, empty buildings," said Anderson.

The proposed new Royal Alberta Museum for Edmonton's downtown, a joint project with the federal government, could also stand to be delayed for 12 months, he said.

Smith said millions of dollars could be recouped by reducing "government waste." Some measures her party would take would include:

— Rolling back 30 per cent salary hikes voted in by cabinet almost four years ago under former premier Ed Stelmach.

— Freezing wages for civil service workers and thinning managerial ranks, through retirement and attrition, to a 10-1 from a 4-1 ratio within five years.

— Disbanding the Alberta Health superboard and returning control to hospitals and health authorities.

— Cutting by 50 per cent the $14-million Public Affairs Bureau, the government's communications arm, which the Wildrose calls a de facto Tory mouthpiece.

— Ditching a $2-billion carbon capture and storage plan — even if it meant paying millions of dollars to private firms for cancelled contracts.

— Reducing cabinet to 16 departments from 20 and slashing severance packages for politicians.