02/12/2015 04:31 EST | Updated 04/15/2015 05:59 EDT

Prentice's Cuts To Budget Will Not Sit Will With Albertans, NDP Warns


EDMONTON - The Alberta NDP says Premier Jim Prentice will find Albertans less forgiving the second time around if he wants to slash his way out of low oil prices.

New Democrat Brian Mason says people remember job losses and service cuts when former premier Ralph Klein pared budgets to the bone to address deficits in the 1990s.

"Anyone that was around during that period will remember the pain, will remember the terrible cuts to our services, the losses of jobs, losses of homes (and the) breakup of families," Mason said Thursday.

"People accepted it then because they thought it was a first-time occurrence, something that we just weren't expecting and we needed to deal with."

But for the next two decades a succession of Progressive Conservative governments have promised, but failed, to disconnect Alberta's day-to-day spending from volatile oil prices, Mason said.

"It's been entirely predictable. The government has had nearly 20 years to fix things so that it never happened again, so I don't think that Albertans are prepared to accept the kind of strong medicine that Jim Prentice is trying to administer."

Prentice has warned for months that strong steps must be taken to combat low oil prices that have taken an estimated $7 billion out of the budget.

On Wednesday, Finance Minister Robin Campbell announced there will be a nine per cent cut in departmental spending across the board in next year's budget, which is to be tabled in March.

Prentice has initiated talks with leaders of Alberta's public-sector unions and called wages for teachers, nurses and other civil servants unsustainable in times of low oil prices.

Union leaders have said they are not interested in a repeat of the 1990s when public-sector workers took voluntary wage cuts to save jobs only to be laid off anyway.

"We lost thousand and thousand of jobs," said Heather Smith, president of the United Nurses of Alberta. "It's a case of fool me once."

Mark Ramsankar, head of the Alberta Teachers' Association, noted teachers already took a three-year wage freeze.

"They've threatened us before and we're not budging on this one," he said.

"In the Klein years they said ... 'We're going to lay off teachers unless you take a five per cent (cut),'" he said.

Teachers took the hit, he recalled, but "the following year they cut staff and they cut teachers and they cut our young staff."

Ramsankar noted that Prentice has already ruled out an increase in corporate taxes or oil royalties to deal with looming deficits.

"Talk to me about royalties. Talk to me about corporate tax. Talk to me about getting rid of the flat tax (on personal income). Once you do that, then we might have a different conversation.

"'Til such time, I don't think so."

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