May 28, 2014 1:15 pm

Prentice promising to cap Alberta debt

Former Conservative federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is shown during an interview in Ottawa on Monday, November 19, 2012. A source working with Jim Prentice confirms the former federal cabinet minister is putting together a team to make a bid for the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand

Fred Chartrand, The Canadian Press

EDMONTON – Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jim Prentice is promising to impose a debt ceiling to limit the money Alberta can borrow for roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure.

Prentice didn’t put a number on that ceiling Wednesday, saying he would first need to see the financial details and infrastructure priorities.

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“Any debt we take on, analogous to a family taking a mortgage, will be within our means, will be paid on an accelerated basis, and will be capped,” Prentice told reporters after a luncheon speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Under former premier Alison Redford, the province began borrowing money to pay for infrastructure. The debt figure is forecast to reach almost $9 billion this fiscal year and $21 billion by 2017.

Prentice wouldn’t commit to keeping with that plan.

“Until I’m at the table and can scrutinize it and prioritize the plan, I don’t know if that will be the number.”

Prentice has already committed to keeping up the infrastructure borrowing if necessary to keep pace with a rapidly growing population, which now sits at four million people.

“You hear it everywhere you go in Alberta, that there’s an enormous infrastructure deficit,” he said. “We will minimize the debt that is financed and we will cap that debt.

“Then we will report to Albertans twice per year in a report card to ensure that they are comfortable with what’s being built, where it’s being built and that we are staying on budget.”

Prentice has promised to accelerate current debt payments to erase the debt in 15 years rather than 30. He said if he becomes premier, half of all future surpluses will go to debt repayment.

Prentice also promised Wednesday to change the budget reporting process to deliver one clear bottom-line number.

Under Redford, the province changed its reporting system to include separate categories for capital spending, day-to-day operational spending and savings.

Critics, particularly the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Opposition Wildrose Party, say the changes are deliberately misleading and make billions of dollars in debt look like a budget surplus.

Prentice did not say he would scrap the Redford system. He would only say his new budget would mean “working together with the auditor general and others to make sure they’re satisfied with how we present consolidated numbers in a manner that is not contentious.”

Prentice, a former Calgary MP, is running against current members of the legislature Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk. The first ballot is slated for September.

Earlier Wednesday, McIver announced in Edmonton that should he win, he would restore some of the funding cut in recent years to roads and water infrastructure.

McIver, like Prentice, has said he doesn’t contemplate tax hikes or tax changes to pay for infrastructure.

McIver wouldn’t say if he will keep going into debt for capital, but said he has heard from Albertans on the topic over the past two weeks.

“One principle is they want a balanced budget. The other principle is they want us to keep building infrastructure,” said McIver. “Those are principles I agree with. And I appreciate that may lead to some difficult decisions, but I think that’s what we’re here for.”

Lukaszuk is touring Alberta to collect 500 signatures from party members to confirm his nomination by Friday’s deadline.

He has said Albertans have told him the budget format is too confusing.

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