EDMONTON — With a week to go before the Alberta budget, and with a possible election coming soon after that, Premier Jim Prentice softened Wednesday his hardline vow to impose deep spending cuts across government.
“Some people would have us just slash and burn our way to prosperity by cutting services, cancelling infrastructure projects and cutting drastically across the board,” Prentice told delegates at an Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Counties event.
“That would hurt all of us, and would certainly hurt those who are most vulnerable in our society.”
A month ago, Prentice and Finance Minister Robin Campbell promised the March 26 budget would include steep spending cuts of at least five per cent up to an effective cut of nine per cent across the board.
Union leaders have said that would lead to layoffs and a deterioration of front-line services from schoolrooms to hospitals and beyond.
Speaking later to reporters Wednesday, Prentice dismissed suggestions he was softening his stance, but refused to confirm whether the five per cent cuts were still in the budget.
“Next week, there will be a budget put forward that will have all the full detail,” he said.
Prentice has said the budget will be accompanied by a paradigm-altering 10-year plan that will remake how Alberta earns and spends money in order to insulate day-to-day budgeting from the wild swings in oil prices.
Since last June, the price of oil has fallen by more than half, erasing an estimated $7 billion in revenue from the upcoming budget.
Prentice, in recent weeks, has emphasized that the core problem is as much about spending as it is about raising revenue.
He has said Albertans are paying too much for public services, and that the province is on the hook for $2.3 billion in “unsustainable” public sector salary hikes over the next three years.
He has also mused about bringing back health premiums and hiking or reorganizing personal income taxes.
The premier has ruled out increases to oil royalties or corporate income taxes, saying that would be a self-defeating move with the economy in a fragile state.
Prentice has promised the changes would challenge Albertans, and would bring “pain.”
Two weeks ago, he angered many by publicly saying Albertans unhappy with the current fiscal situation should “look in the mirror.”
However, in the Edmonton speech, the politician labelled by some as “Grim Jim” struck a more optimistic note.
He said despite the downturn, the province will continue to build the infrastructure necessary for the province’s rapidly growing population, and emphasizing that all changes will be “balanced” and “fair.”
“We have to continue to build, and we are building,” he told the audience.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said Albertans need to take Prentice’s words in the context of the looming election.
“The issue is whether Albertans can actually believe a word he says based on what we’ve heard in the past,” said Notley.
“I think what you’re seeing now is a pre-election softening for the sole purpose of re-election.”