What to expect in the 2014 Alberta budget
Albertans are hoping for a turnaround but the question is how the numbers are being spun
The provincial budget comes down Thursday afternoon and there have been several hints the province's economic picture is brighter.
But there is a disagreement about how the numbers are being presented to Albertans.
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Last year Finance Minister Doug Horner introduced new accounting practices in the budget that left many political observers wondering about the size of the surplus, deficit and debt.
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"The consolidated financial statements that we do are generally accepted accounting principles public sector accounting guidelines that are used by federal government, used by the other provinces," he said.
But those accounting practices have received widespread criticism.
"Doug Horner had to go into the chamber of commerce with a bunch of business people who are all saying we can't figure this budget out, you now tell us what is in there and he was ridiculed," said political science professor Duane Bratt.
Horner has a reputation for breaking from tradition — including an unusual one practised among Canadian finance ministers where they purchase or wear new shoes when the budget is delivered.
On the eve of the provincial budget he bought new shoes for his three grandsons.
"Rather than me get new shoes, I would do something a little different," he said.
"I did actually get them on a sale."
Although officially just a photo-op, Horner took the opportunity to reject criticism the government isn't being clear with its numbers.
One year ago the talk was all about the bitumen bubble — the discounted price Alberta gets for its crude oil.
But this year that bubble is shrinking, a lower dollar is helping exports and oil and gas revenues are up. It means Albertans will likely hear in the budget speech the province has "turned the corner."
Deficit expected again this year
"Based on our projections from the third quarter fiscal update we're going to be running a $3.5 billion deficit this year," said Derek Fildebrandt of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Analysts say it's critical for the government to balance the books.
"If they come up with another operational deficit the poll numbers that we saw this week are going to get even worse," said Bratt.
The opposition is already sharpening its knives.
"We have countless quotes from her during the leadership race and even immediately after she became premier talking about how her government wouldn't run debt," said Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith.
Premier Alison Redford seems unfazed.
Late last week she again defended the province's deep plunge back into debt.
"As a typical Albertan I pay for my groceries and I don't borrow to do that. I have a mortgage on my house and that's what we've got on infrastructure," said Redford.
The question is how big the mortgage is going to be.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation claims the debt is going to grow by $4 billion a year for the next several years — numbers the federation says would have former premier Ralph Klein spitting mad.
4 things to watch for
Building Alberta Plan: It includes the government's plan to build 50 new schools and modernize 70 schools over the next three years. The plan also pitches the development of Family Care Clinics along with training programs and labs, a Final Mile Initiative to connect remote regions of the province and other projects, such as new seniors care facilities and a film studio for Calgary. The biggest question is how the province plans to pay for it.
Ring roads, highways: Plans are in the works to finish Edmonton's ring road, twin Highway 63 from Grassland to Fort McMurray and start the process of building the southwest leg of Calgary's ring road.
Flood impact on budget: This will be the first budget to be tabled since the devastating floods that hit southern Alberta last year.
Municipal funding: Premier Alison Redford said in her throne speech her government has plans to renew the long-term funding commitment to the Municipal Sustainability Initiative and GreenTrip funding in 2014.
With files from CBC's Bryan Labby