Budget balancing aim of economic summit

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the message it's bringing to Saturday's economic summit is that Alberta has grown fat and lazy on the empty calories of silly spending and needs to slim down — now.

The Canadian Taxpayers Federation says the message it's bringing to Saturday's economic summit is that Alberta has grown fat and lazy on the empty calories of silly spending and needs to slim down — now.

"Albertans are at their core willing to live with a limited government that doesn't do everything and Albertans don't want Quebec-style government," Derek Fildebrandt, Alberta head of the advocacy group, said Friday.

"We understand there's a difference between needs and wants, that we have to set priorities, and that the (Alberta) government's current course of not setting priorities and merely being able to go into debt for everything is not the Albertan way."

Fildebrandt is to join 19 other business leaders and academics for panel discussions at Premier Alison Redford's one-day economic summit at Calgary's Mount Royal University.

About 300 people are expected to take in the discussions, which are aimed at figuring out long-term ways to balance Alberta's budget, raise revenue and wean the province off dependence on roller-coaster oil and gas income.

Fildebrandt is calling for almost $4 billion in cuts to Alberta's $41-billion budget, including a 7.5 per cent cut in operational spending. He'd also like to draw out capital projects, cut the civil service by five per cent and cut $170 million from corporate-government projects such as carbon capture and storage.

He said he's worried that Redford plans to take on more debt to pay for capital projects and may bring back de facto taxes such as health-care premiums.

"Significant spending reductions are not in (the Tories') DNA," he said.

"We're still in pretty good times. We're just not in boom times, but we're still trying to live within the paradigm of the mid-2000s boom."

The summit panellists range across the economic and political spectrum.

There are economists Todd Hirsch, Mike Percy, Mary Webb, Peter Tertzakian and Joseph Doucet. Political scientist and Wildrose party strategist Tom Flanagan is to be there as is Jack Mintz, director of the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary.

Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, and Heather Smith from the United Nurses of Alberta are also to attend. Adam Legge, the CEO of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, is also on the list.

Non-profits will be represented by Barb Higgins of the United Way of Calgary and Liz O'Neill from the organization Boys and Girls Big Brothers Big Sisters.

The outcome of the talks won't affect the 2013 budget, which will be delivered in less than a month on March 7.

"We were never planning for this summit to be about a conversation that would inform final decisions on the budget," Redford said Thursday.

"The budget is simply one tool in economic growth and development, so I think the conversation can be much wider than that. My sense is that the people that are coming are coming to this with that spirit."

Redford has warned that falling prices for oil from Alberta's oilsands are projected to cut in half the $13 billion the province was expecting to take in for the coming budget year.

Alberta has run five consecutive deficit budgets, but the red ink has been covered by the province's multibillion-dollar Sustainability Fund.

Opposition Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said she will attend Saturday's event, but characterized the forum as another step in what she said is Redford's covert campaign to build public support for tax hikes.

Smith noted that a new online government tool giving Albertans the chance to balance a pretend provincial budget is skewed toward tax increases. Redford has also mused in recent weeks about bringing back health premiums.

"She's setting the stage for a tax increase," said Smith. "She's not going to do it this budget year, but I think it's very clear that tax increases are on the table in subsequent years."

NDP Leader Brian Mason said Redford is scaremongering on oil prices to cover up for her party's mismanagement of the economy in boom times.

He said the government will use the economy to bring in cuts to public-sector services and wages while refusing to tap revenue sources such as increases to oil royalties or reversing previous cuts to income taxes for the wealthy.

The summit "is kind of lip service," said Mason.

Mason's party is hitting the road starting Monday to canvass Albertans in townhall meetings about what they'd like to see in the budget and to hear suggestions on how to solve the looming deficit.

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he will attend the summit, but said Redford needs to stop talking and start acting.

"This is a time for leadership and decisions," he said. "She has to cut wasteful spending."