EDMONTON - In a show of unity, nurses, teachers and labour groups joined Monday to condemn "Klein-style cuts" they say are coming to public services in Thursday's provincial budget.
Premier Alison Redford was elected for her "progressive" Conservative agenda, but she is betraying those promises with a "slash and burn" budget rather than moving ahead with tax reforms to cover the deficit, Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour. told a news conference.
"The (budget) will be Klein light and this is not what Albertans thought they were getting when they voted for Alison Redford as opposed to the Wildrose party,'' McGowan said.
Five of the biggest public sector unions — the Alberta Teachers' Association, Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, United Nurses of Alberta, the Health Sciences Association and the Canadian Union of Public Employees — also released polling data showing that most people do not want to see public service cuts and instead favour some kind of tax reform — higher royalties or a return to progressive income tax — to reduce the red ink in the budget.
A deficit of $4 billion is expected at the end of this fiscal year as energy revenues plunged by an estimated $6 billion due to low bitumen prices.
The unions also took aim at the comments from conservative lobby groups like the Fraser Institute that Alberta has the highest per capita spending of all provinces and that spending is out of control.
Alberta is the middle of the pack, spending about $10,623 per person while Newfoundland is at the top with spending of $12,029 per person, and Ontario and Quebec are lowest at $9,359 and $8,800 respectively, McGowan said. The AFL research is based on provincial budget documents across the country.
Alberta also has the second lowest number of government workers per capita, he. Ontario has the lowest and Prince Edward Island has the highest number of civil servants per capita.
"So we are wealthy like Saudi Arabia and spending like New Brunswick," McGowan said.
Late last month, Redford announced a three-year wage freeze for managers in the civil service and plans to cut their ranks by 10 per cent — more than 400 jobs — as she struggles to rein in spending.
For education, even a freeze in funding would amount to a cut because 12,000 more students are expected to enter the school system this year and have to be accommodated, ATA vice-president Mark Ramsankar said.
"Redford promised stable, long-term funding and full day kindergarten, but it's not clear either of those promises will be delivered," Ramsankar said.
The union, which is currently in bargaining, also fears the province will axe the professional development fund.
Former premier Ralph Klein used a strategy of creating a climate of crisis around government deficits and unions vowed not to succumb to that again.
"My message to Redford is don't panic," said Heather Smith, president of UNA. "This is a revenue problem, not a spending problem, and you are prescribing the wrong treatment."
"Albertans believed they were not electing a Wildrose-policy government. If that's what they are going to get, I've heard many are wondering if should vote for them."
UNA's contract ends at the end of March. AUPE also begins bargaining this spring.
The poll done by Environics Research Group in February shows that 72 per cent of Albertans favour going back to progressive income tax, and 78 per cent supported increasing taxes paid by corporations and high income earners.
In the poll, 71 per cent agreed with the statement that Albertans are not getting their fair share of royalty revenue — though the number fell to 64 per cent in Calgary Calgary.
The poll of 1,014 people is accurate to plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
McGowan said Redford is blaming the "bitumen bubble" though the real problem is the government does not raise enough revenue to pay for services.
"Redford should fix the revenue hole. That's what she was elected to do. If it is not betrayal (of promises), it is close to betrayal."
The Edmonton Journal, Monday, Mar. 04, 2013
Byline: Sheila Pratt