Public sector unions are girding to fight impending provincial cutbacks driven by a multi-billion dollar cash crunch.
And a prominent economist says Premier Alison Redford's TV address to Albertans Thursday fails to come to grips with a looming budget shortfall larger than the province is letting on.
Even before Redford's speech, the Alberta Federation of Labour was readying a public relations offensive to offer alternatives to slashing spending on crucial programs, said AFL President Gil McGowan.
"The public sector unions have been meeting the past couple of weeks to discuss the implications of the budget and like a lot of Albertans, we're prepared for the worst," McGowan said Friday.
Alberta's fiscal chickens are coming home to roost after years of tax-slashing for wealthier Albertans and a resource revenue giveaway to a wildly profitable energy industry, he said.
"Our provincial GDP is literally 75 percent higher than the rest of the country yet we can no longer afford even to have run-of-the-mill services," said McGowan.
"I call it the great Alberta disconnect."
After meeting with Finance Minister Doug Horner last Tuesday, McGowan said it's clear areas like education and health care won't be spared drastic action in the budget expected in March.
"Everything we've heard is suggesting the budget won't be as bad as what we saw in the Klein years but worse than anything we've seen since," he said.
University of Calgary economist Dr. Jack Mintz said Redford's TV address muddied the fiscal waters, adding unmentioned obligations like financing requirements could see a shortfall of up $8-$10 billion.
"This government has considerable credibility problems as far as their budget plan," he said.
Even with budget cuts averaging 5% over all departments — or a $2 billion slim-down — an ocean of red ink will remain because the discount on Alberta bitumen will also persist for years, added Mintz.
"If they don't make major cuts this years, the sustainability fund will be depleted and they'll be borrowing because they don't want to take it from the heritage fund," he said.
Educators watched Redford with considerable interest, hoping the province's commitment made to them last year in a three-year funding pact will hold in March, said Calgary public school board vice-chairman Lynn Ferguson.
"We are certainly aware of the economic challenges facing the province," said Ferguson.
"I would hope since education is a consistent priority for Albertans, that value would be reflected even in a difficult budget year."
She noted there's a possibility the province could delay funding building projects, noting her district has 16 projects including modernizations and new schools, one of them a northeast high school.
"I would like them to know in a growing community like Calgary, new schools are always needed," she said adding 24 Calgary communities have no public schools.
Ferguson also voiced some concern about the fate of its full-day kindergarten program.
Redford said an unforeseen discount on the province's bitumen is largely to blame for the fiscal gap.
But the AFL's McGowan echoed right-wing critics like the Wildrose Party in arguing that situation has long existed.
"That differential between world oil and bitumen prices has existed for years," he said.
The Calgary Sun, Friday, Jan. 25, 2013
Byline: Bill Kaufman