CALGARY — Blasted for days over the legislature committee that paid real money for fictional work, Premier Alison Redford must be kicking herself.
The premier could have been the hero on this one. Instead, she allowed a taxpayer lobby group to bump her off the podium.
Redford was far out in front of the pay issue last Aug. 23, when she promised during the PC leadership campaign to "eliminate special payments for simply serving on a government committee."
Redford's view of MLA pay was in tune with the public mood. She knew it smelled and said so.
"MLAs are currently paid from so many different pots that it is difficult, and on occasion impossible, for Albertans to determine how much each MLA makes," said her campaign statement on pay reform.
Clear views like that won her the support of many Tory leadership voters; and, by no coincidence, virtually none from Tory MLAs.
Until just before the end of the campaign, only lonely Calgary-Hays member Art Johnston backed her.
Redford wanted to turn the pay system upside-down. Particularly, she was opposed to lush severance deals "that come with their own set of rules."
That was strong stuff. It set her apart, showed she wanted to change the system.
When Redford became premier she could have followed through immediately.
But she didn't. Instead, she turned her promise into a process — another panel to study an issue. And she vowed to follow its findings, no matter what they are.
Maybe that's the lawyer in her. Redford does believe in due process, in the advice of experts, in studying things first and doing them right.
But sometimes in politics firm leadership is all that counts.
The premier could have shoved that committee into the ditch in her first week on the job. The voters would have loved her for it, even if her caucus didn't.
But she formed her panel. Soon the pay issue must have seemed minor as health care and other problems heated up.
Symbolic irritants like political pay never really lose their power, though. They just lie dormant until somebody steps on them.
Last week, along came the Canadian Taxpayers Federation with its Teddy Awards for dumb waste.
And the winner among all provincial governments was Alberta's Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders and Printing.
Many Albertans were shocked to learn that MLAs are paid just for belonging to committees, and positively outraged that one all-party committee pays but never meets.
Redford essentially agreed with the federation when she said, "It's not right." Indeed, she'd been the first to say it, five months earlier.
But the premier had lost the initiative. She'd even forgotten — or never been aware — that she was briefly an unpaid member of that committee.
On Monday, Redford finally showed that it's not so tough to act after all, by decreeing that Tory MLAs will take no more pay from that committee.
In my view, she was a lot quicker off the mark with the budding uproar over fundraising efforts by Alberta's trade envoy to Asia, Gary Mar.
This time Redford didn't wait for somebody else to break the news. She did it first, abruptly announcing that Mar was suspended from his Hong Kong job pending an ethics inquiry.
There's no way the government escapes this one without further damage, but at least the new premier was acting the way she talked, way back last summer.
Calgary Herald, Mon Mar 12 2012
Byline: Don Braid
'These are the issues that we need to talk about in an election,' premier tells reporters
Premier Alison Redford remains committed to calling an election immediately after the provincial budget is passed, in spite of multiple controversies that have hounded the governing Tories in recent weeks.
Speaking to reporters at a fundraising dinner in Airdrie on Saturday, Redford admitted she is concerned by a series of recent events that have cast the government in a negative light.
"There's a lot of those things going on right now, and there's no doubt they're troubling to me," Redford said. "There's no doubt that right before an election there's an awful lot of politics, but I'm not diminishing this as politics. These are the issues that we need to talk about in an election."
The most recent blow to the PCs came Friday, when Redford suspended former leadership candidate Gary Mar from his post as Alberta's envoy to Asia over a recent fundraiser held to clear up his debts from the campaign. The $400-per-ticket event held at the Edmonton Petroleum Club offered Mar in his capacity apparently as envoy speaking about doing business in Asia. Redford has asked the province's ethics commissioner to look into the situation.
On Saturday, Redford said it would be inappropriate for her to do anything further at this point, because Mar — like all government of Alberta employees — deserves to be treated with due process. But she said she was quite concerned to see that the original invitation to the Mar fundraiser referred to his position as a public servant. Redford's communications chief Jay O'Neill said in an interview Friday that there would be conflict-of-interest provisions in Mar's contract as envoy. There are also guidelines for senior civil servants.
"It's not appropriate, in my mind, for this type of action to take place," Redford said. "But it's not for me to decide that — it's for the ethics commissioner."
Leadership campaign financial documents released by the PC party on Friday showed Mar's campaign spent almost $2.7 million on the leadership race, racking up a $262,000 deficit. Mar could not be reached for comment Saturday.
Also on Friday, news broke that Redford herself was a member for several months on a controversial legislature committee that never actually met. The day before, Redford told the Herald that she was unaware that 21 government and opposition MLAs have been paid $1,000 a month — a total of $261,000 annually — to sit on a committee that hasn't met since 2008.
Redford said she herself never received any payment for her time on the committee, but acknowledged that Albertans are unhappy about the entire issue.
"I found out yesterday that I had been assigned to this committee," Redford said. "I didn't receive any pay for sitting on this committee, but the randomness of it is something that is very troubling to me and it should be troubling to Albertans."
Redford said she hopes the independent panel headed by former judge Jack Major that she appointed to look into the issue of MLA compensation will go a long way toward addressing the problem.
Redford added the very fact that she is taking steps to investigate both the Mar question and the issue of politicians' pay is proof of her commitment to accountability in government.
"I think it's important for us to think about this in terms of Albertans' trust in the institutions of government," Redford said. "That's always been my concern."
In an interview with the Herald on Friday, Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt said the PCs' recent problems — everything from accusations of bullying school board officials and doctors to allegations the party took illegal donations from municipalities and other public bodies — are starting to resonate with the public.
The provincial budget is expected to be passed in the legislature before the end of the month. By law, a provincial election must be held before the end of May.
Calgary Herald, Sun Mar 11 2012
Byline: Amanda Stephenson
MLAs scramble to explain phantom committee's stipend
Imagine you were getting paid $1,000 a month to do work above and beyond your regular job.
Now imagine you haven't actually done any extra work, but you still got paid the $1,000 a month.
If you can do that you have a vivid imagination - or you're an Alberta politician, specifically one of 21 MLAs who are members of an all-party legislative panel with the long-winded title Standing Committee on Privileges and Elections, Standing Orders and Printing.
The committee hasn't met since 2008, yet every member gets paid $1,000 a month, 12 months a year.
The committee's lack of vigour has been in the news off and on over the years but it made national headlines on Wednesday after the Canadian Taxpayers Federation handed out its tongue-in-cheek Teddy Awards to highlight the "worst of the worst in government waste."
Named after Ted Weatherill, a former federal-government employee dismissed in 1999 for "outrageous" expenses, the Teddies take aim at all politicians deemed to be wasting taxpayers' money.
And in the case of the Alberta standing committee, the award goes to all parties, not just the Conservatives.
Of the 21 members on the committee, 16 are Conservatives, two are from the Wildrose Party, and there's one each from the Liberals, New Democrats and the Alberta Party.
According to the legislative assembly's web page, the committee "meets when the House has referred a matter for consideration." And as the taxpayers' federation points out, the house hasn't referred a matter to the committee for 39 months.
But the members still get paid.
That had MLAs from all parties scrambling on Wednesday to justify why they're accepting money for working on a committee that doesn't do any work.
The worst scrambler by far was Genia Leskiw, the Conservative MLA from Bonnyville-Cold Lake, who tried to dance around the subject while managing to stick at least one foot in her mouth.
Leskiw said she doesn't know how many committees she sits on and she couldn't explain what the standing committee of privileges and elections actually does. When asked by reporters to explain the committee's work, Leskiw was literally at a loss for words for almost five seconds before blurting out, "No comment."
Asked if she was going to keep the $1,000 a month - or give it to charity as Liberal MLA David Swann does - she paused again before responding, "No comment."
Asked if the committee should be scrapped because it's not doing any work, she paused and said, "I have no opinion on that."
And this, I should point out, was Leskiw's second interview on the subject with reporters, after she had time to reflect on the subject and get briefed by staff.
The most common explanation for accepting money for work not done is that the MLAs work on other committees that don't pay any-thing extra.
"When I was first elected, I sat on seven committees and I was paid for sitting on three of them," said New Democrat MLA Rachel Notley who now sits on five committees but gets paid for three. "The net outcome is that I'm doing more than I'm paid for."
Notley's comments were echoed by virtually all the MLAs, who argued that getting paid to sit on a committee that does no work is counterbalanced by not getting paid to sit on committees that actually do work.
The opposition members, though, have a mitigating point in their favour. They want the standing committee on privileges and elections to meet but they're routinely shut down by the government. Notley has tried twice to have the committee meet in the past year to discuss points of privilege raised in the assembly dealing with government members' behaviour, but the government MLAs, who control a majority of members on the committee, ignored her.
"It's a total waste of money," says Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier, who has been a member of the committee since October. "They should either call the committee to order or they should can the committee."
Boutilier says the opposition members re-ally have no choice but to sit on the committee just in case the government actually does call it to order to discuss technical issues of debate and decorum, in which case the opposition parties want to be there when decisions are made.
The solution to this issue likely lies in the hands of Jack Major, the former Supreme Court justice who runs a one-man commission reviewing MLA compensation. The average Alberta politician's remuneration is $163,000 a year including base salary, a retirement allowance and committee pay. Major could, for example, recommend that MLAs simply receive a lump-sum salary that covers all of their work or only give them extra money when they actually perform extra work.
The only system that won't work is the status quo where MLAs, regardless of party affiliation, look like they're fleecing taxpayers.
Edmonton Journal, Thurs Mar 8 2012
Byline: Graham Thomson
Some funds are voluntarily being returned
Alberta's opposition parties say they aren't under investigation in a controversy over illegal donations that has put the governing Progressive Conservatives under the scrutiny of the province's chief electoral officer.
Elections Alberta said in a news release this week it has 53 open investigations related to allegations of donations to political parties and constituency associations from "prohibited corporations" - municipalities, school boards and other public bodies.
The statement said all political entities and prohibited corporations under investigation have been contacted by Elections Alberta.
While the cases that have been the subject of public complaint all involve the Tories, Elections Alberta spokesman Drew Westwater told the Herald the PCs are not the only party with files under review.
However, the Wildrose Party, Liberals, NDP and Alberta Party all say they aren't under investigation.
Wildrose Party executive director Shayne Saskiw said the party has not been notified by Elections Alberta that itself or any of its constituency associations are under investigation in relation to the issue of illegal donations.
"There's nothing on contributions that Elections Alberta has informed us about," he said.
Likewise, NDP provincial secretary Brian Stokes said his party has had no contact with Elections Alberta on the issue. He noted the NDP does not take contributions at all through its constituency associations.
The Liberals also aren't under investigation, said party Leader Raj Sherman.
"I have no knowledge of it. If I have knowledge of any donations, they should be returned . . . I am not aware of any such case," he said.
Elections Alberta has so far not directed any party or constituency association to return funds, imposed administrative penalties on any prohibited corporations or referred any cases for prosecution.
However, the agency said some donations are already being voluntarily returned.
The PC party said this week it will return money donated by Calgary Laboratory Services, a subsidiary of Alberta Health Services.
AHS said it has completed a review and the donations made by CLS were the only political contributions by the superboard or one of its subsidiaries since the superboard's founding in 2008.
Since the issue surfaced last fall, prompting a rash of investigations to be launched, Elections Alberta has closed eight files where no illegal contributions were made.
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 8 2012
Byline: James Wood with files from Darcy Henton
But 21 MLAs still paid $1,000 a month
Alberta opposition members are calling on the Redford government to kill an all-party committee that never meets to spare the province the embarrassment of being singled out nationally for wasting taxpayer dollars.
But some of the 21 MLAS who have been paid $1,000 a month to be part of the committee that hasn't met since 2008 say they work hard for the money on other committees and it is up to voters to decide if they deserve their paycheques.
"All I know is I seem to be working from morning to night every day and I go home and continue working," said Conservative MLA Genia Leskiw, who represent BonnyvilleCold Lake.
Leskiw noted she works on other committees for which she receives no reimbursement, but couldn't say what the standing committee on privileges and elections, standing orders and printing actually does. Leskiw declined to comment on whether she would keep the $12,000 in annual salary for being named to a committee that hasn't met in more than three years.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation issued the committee a Teddy Award Wednesday for wasting taxpayer's money. It noted for the year ending March 31, the committee cost taxpayers $261,000 while accomplishing little or nothing.
Scott Hennig, Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation, said it has been several years since an Alberta government won the award, but it usually goes to recipients that make you "shake your head and cry a little."
"It's the ones that are the most ridiculous that tend to win," he said.
The MLA committee received attention not only for the fact that it was is a horrific waste of money, costing taxpayers nearly $1 million since it last met, but because it involved about one quarter of all the province's MLAs and is one of the longest-standing committees, Hennig said.
But Little Bow Conservative MLA Barry McFarland said he doesn't believe his committee pay is an issue with voters in his riding.
"At the end of the day, there's public disclosure and they see I made $123,000 . . . and they think I have earned it," he said.
Leskiw conceded voters have a right to question the value of the committee and noted a retired judge appointed to review MLA compensation is expected to make recommendations to the government later this year.
"Having the review of it, I think, is a good idea," she said. "We'll see what happens."
But Liberal MLA Kent Hehr called on deputy premier Doug Horner to fold the committee now and spare MLAs further embarrassment.
"This issue makes us all look bad, Mr. Deputy Premier," Hehr noted in the legislature. "Can we have some sort of situation in place to end this practice that would stop making us look this bad."
Horner said the committees falls under the authority of the all-party member services committee, headed by Speaker Ken Kowalski, and invited Hehr to put forward a motion in that committee or the Legislative Assembly.
Opposition MLAs say they have complained in the past that they are locked into receiving the stipend, but some, like Liberal David Swann, said they donated it to charity or their party.
Swann said he believes MLAs should be paid for work they do - not work they don't do.
NDP MLA Rachel Notley, who also sits on the committee, said she has tried several times to refer matters to the committee, but has not been successful because the Conservative government majority voted the motions down. She said the key job of the committee is to hold government and opposition MLAs accountable to a certain standard of behaviour.
"I have probably done quite a bit of work to try to make the committee do some work and ultimately the fact it hasn't is the function of the government not wanting to be held accountable - because that's the role of the committee," she said.
Calgary Herald, Thurs Mar 8 2012
Byline: Darcy Henton
Wildrose party cries political electioneering
The Redford government is under attack from opposition members over spending more than $1.3 million of taxpayers' money on advertising campaigns - including $425,000 promoting the 2012 budget - just weeks before an election call.
Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier charged Tuesday that many of the advertisements constitute blatant political electioneering that should be paid for by the Progressive Conservative party rather than taxpayers.
Boutilier drew attention to a new campaign to assure Albertans there are no new taxes coming this year.
"This government ad isn't about a new program or project," Boutilier told the legislature. "It's not a public service announcement. It's a purely political ad using Albertans' hard-earned tax dollars."
He said the campaign contains lines like: "No new taxes means you can keep spending money on things that matter to you."
But Redford contends the advertising is a legitimate use of taxpayers dollars.
"We want Albertans to be informed with respect to the budget," she said Monday before heading to Washington. "We want them to clearly understand how optimistic we are with respect to the future of the economy, that we have made no decisions and will not make decisions that would suggest we would make cuts in services."
According to a script tabled in the legislature, the ad features various people talking on the street about how they want to spend their money, with an announcer concluding: "We're keeping money in Albertans' wallets."
Boutilier said he believes using taxpayers dollars to convey such a message on the eve of an election is "unethical."
"It's fundamentally wrong and it doesn't pass the smell test."
Deputy premier Doug Horner accused the Wildrose party of "political grandstanding.
"Every year we do a budget," he said. "We spend dollars on informing Albertans what is contained in that budget and what it means to their lives. Albertans want us to do that."
Premier's spokesman Jay O'Neill said the government is spending $425,000 on a radio, online and newspaper ad campaign that runs from Feb. 10 to March 15 to promote the budget. It is spending an additional $260,000 on advertising to promote its recentlyannounced review of electricity pricing mechanisms.
"Just because there is an election coming doesn't mean government stops business," O'Neill said. The government is also running a $270,000 ad campaign to promote traffic safety and its new distracted driving law and a $377,000 ad campaign against family violence, but those ads haven't been the focus of the opposition criticism.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said it is "outrageous" the Redford government is using taxpayers money to promote itself on the eve of an election call.
"You should not be able to use taxpayer dollars for blatant partisan advertising in advance of an election," she said.
Manitoba has a law that bans government advertising 60 days in advance of the election being called, Smith said. She pledged to set a fixed election date so a similar election advertising ban could be imposed in Alberta to prevent the abuse of taxpayers dollars.
Saskatchewan, which also has a fixed election date, also has a ban on government advertising 30 days before the writ is dropped.
But Redford said the advertising informs Albertans her government is not going to raise taxes and that "the budget we're going to pass is the fiscal plan for the future of the province."
Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson accused the Tories of using taxpayers money as their own campaign "piggy bank."
NDP Leader Brian Mason said his party would be in trouble with the Legislature Assembly Office if it attempted to use money set aside for caucus research on such partisan advertising before a vote. He said legislature officials "would come down on us like a ton of bricks."
"They are using their position as government to spend taxpayers money to convince people to vote for the Progressive Conservative party," he said.
He also criticized the premier for doubling her communications office staff with the addition of five employees seconded from the province's Public Affairs Bureau.
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Darcy Henton
Ramp-up planned for September 2013
Alberta parents shouldn't expect to see the full-day kindergarten promised by Premier Alison Redford this fall, but the province's education minister says as much as 50 per cent of Alberta kindergarten spots will be in full-day programs by the beginning of the 2013 school year.
When fully ramped up, Thomas Lukaszuk said, full-day classes will cost the province an extra $200 million per annum, and will probably be an option rather than mandatory program.
However, the minister expects abundant uptake because "parents see value in this."
Under questioning by the Alberta Liberals in the legis-lature on Tuesday, Lukaszuk said the Redford government's commitment to full-day kindergarten stands, but more classroom space will be needed to house what he said is essentially a new grade.
"It is obvious that you just can't flick a switch and make it available September 2012," Lukaszuk said.
"There simply isn't enough space capacity in many of the schools."
In an interview, the minister said the program funding will come, and the only limiting factor for getting children into full-day kindergarten, which many educators believe improves literacy and social skills development, will be available infrastructure.
"You will see it in September of 2013; you will see a wide-scale implementation," Lukaszuk said, noting already one quarter of kindergarten children attend full-day classes.
"It will be somewhere probably between 25 and 50 per cent by 2013, and building year by year." Lukaszuk said his department is doing an analysis of classroom availability. Some school boards have excess capacity, he said, and others that have "zero capacity" will request portables.
"Some school boards may consider actually redesignating an entire school that's empty into all kindergarten," Lukaszuk said. "Different school boards will find different ways of doing it."
In the PC party leadership race last year, Redford said within a year of forming the government, she would implement full-day kindergarten. Last December the premier said the program would be phased in within two or three years.
But Alberta Liberal education critic Kent Hehr said he doesn't see the Tories putting money or a real commitment behind the full-day program. The Calgary-Buffalo MLA said the budget doesn't contain firm numbers for staffing or building new school infrastructure.
"This is simply a promise to do something in the future," Hehr said.
"It's another leadership promise that has fallen by the wayside."
The public Calgary Board of Education already provides full-day kindergarten in 16 schools, while the Calgary Catholic School District has the program in 22 schools.
Those programs are paid for out of the boards' existing funding and are in schools where it is felt a significant portion of the students would benefit, such as schools with a large number of children who speak English as a second language.
Chris Smeaton, superintendent for the Holy Spirit Roman Catholic Separate Regional Division No. 4, said his southern Alberta school division would need to add a number of modular classrooms to existing schools to accommodate the change.
Smeaton said only one of the school division's 10 elementary schools now has the space for full-day kindergarten programming.
"Currently the infrastructure doesn't support it," he said.
In Calgary, the public board also said not every elementary school today has room for full-day kindergarten classes. Through a spokeswoman, board chairwoman Pat Cochrane said she and the board of trustees are "looking forward to working with the minister on this issue and to exploring further with him what his vision for all-day kindergarten will be."
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Kelly Cryderman
Politics in Alberta. Money for nothing and the cheques for free. Dire straits indeed.
Let's hope somewhere in their skulls or souls they know it's wrong.
We can always hope but precious few show any evidence of knowing and no one is stepping up to give back the cash.
What we're talking about this day is the fact a group of provincial politicians, most of them from the governing Tories, sit on a committee that doesn't sit.
It's a group of 21 seatwarmers, that's more than a quarter of the legislature, who never have to warm a seat.
They just have to keep breathing and pick up the dough — $12,000 a year. If you're the chairman you score $18,000, to do nothing as you head up the group of do-nothings.
In this financial year, $261,000 has gone to this do-nothing farce. Since the committee last met 39 months ago, we're moving close to a million dollars for politicians in this absurd and immoral deal.
Yes, the group haven't met since 2008 and that meeting was ... wait for it ... 14 minutes long. Then they stopped huddling since, unlike the old days, these mugs don't get paid by the meeting, they get their coin for being in the group whether it meets or not.
Tory MLA Ray Prins, the chairman with the $18,000 for heading up nothing, doesn't appear to see a problem.
He feels the group is ready to respond as needed.
Yes, it's like the Standing Committee on Privileges, Elections, Standing Orders and Printing are on call, ready to go down the pole and out to the trucks, sirens on, to what we're not exactly sure.
Genia Leskiw, another Tory MLA on the committee, isn't sure what this group who don't meet is supposed to do when it's not doing nothing.
It's quite the gig and a lot of former heavy hitters get a stop at the money-for-nothing committee before they head out the door or because they've been taken down a notch or two.
Unsteady Eddie, the former premier pocketing a million bucks to go away, is at the trough of troughs.
There's former health minister Gene Zwozdesky, with his name on the list for the free grand a month after he was dumped from the Tory inner circle.
There's David Swann, whose regular cheque must not be as fat since he's no longer Liberal leader.
There's Lloyd Snelgrove, Eddie's old budget boss and Mel Knight who couldn't handle the energy file with two hands and a flashlight.
Lookee here, it's the less-than-legendary Janis Tarchuk who is leaving politics with $645,000 as a parting gift. That extra grand a month is just a little icing on her cake.
At the Canadian Taxpayers Federation they talk about how, in the real world, people go on committees where it's long hours and no pay. On this committee, it's no hours and $12,000 a year.
This is so bad, the taxpayer group gives the committee an award Wednesday for the most ridiculous provincial government waste to be found from coast to coast to coast.
Top-of-the-line piggery right here in free-spending Alberta.
Why mince words? This committee stunt is an obscenity, it should be toast and the politicians pocketing the dollars should put them back into the public kitty.
Alas, this is just the absurd top of an ugly iceberg.
There's the bye-bye bucks the provincial politicians gobble up at the exit door with the biggest winner being Ken Kowalski, the legislature Speaker who happens to be the head of a committee that does meet because they're in charge of fiddling with MLA pay and perks.
He will walk away in a month with $1.2 million.
Then there's the MLA pay, where you'd have to earn between $127,000 and $164,000 a year to make the same take-home pay as a backbencher daydreaming in the back row, voting on command and not spending a whole lot of time actually in the legislature.
Don't forget the RSP allowance, a free cheque of $11,225 this year.
The Wildrose have been pushing for a single wage for MLA with no extra committee pay. But it's Calgary Liberal MLA Kent Hehr who doesn't hold back.
Hehr demands action from the Tories, saying they should get the committee to kill itself.
The Tories have a majority on the committee.
Deputy Premier Doug Horner does diddly but dance and accuses Hehr of "playing to the media."
"This has to be cleaned up. We have a bad enough image without adding fuel to the fire," says Hehr.
"You have to be open and honest or people see through the BS sooner or later."
Sadly, it's usually later.
Calgary Sun, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Rick Bell
Government advertising should be used to inform the public about programs and services, not to promote the party in power. The Redford government's new $425,000 ad campaign on its recently passed budget clearly seems to be doing the latter. The ads contain no public service value and, on the cusp of an election, come across as shameless electioneering.
An excerpt from a casting call for one of the radio ads says that Alberta is not introducing any new taxes this year, with a young man's voice saying that will allow him to buy a new mountain bike. A mom says she's going to buy a candy-apple red cake mixer, and an older couple effuse that they are going on vacation. An announcer says: "No new taxes means you can keep spending money on things that matter to you," according to the radio script.
Opposition critics says the ad is an example of the Redford Tories trying to buy votes from Albertans with their own money. "This government ad isn't about a new program or project," Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier said. "It's not a public service announcement. It's a purely political ad using Albertans' hard-earned tax dollars."
The claim of no new taxes may technically be true, but the Redford government has indicated that tax hikes, including possibly even a sales tax, are on the table in future budgets. Finance Minister Ron Liepert, in tabling the budget last month, said "we must diversify our economy and grow our economic pie."
"As we move away from volatile resource revenues to fund ongoing programs, and move toward a more sustainable revenue base, we know that a discussion on taxes must lie in Alberta's future," Liepert said. "While the tax system may change, one thing that must not change is Alberta's tax advantage."
In other words, the Redford government will consider raising taxes as long as everyone else's are higher. It is thus specious to run ads saying there are no new taxes now just weeks before Redford is expected to call an election.
Other provinces ban government advertising in the lead up to an election. Alberta shouldn't go that far. The business of government does not stop because of an impending election. But ads that are partisan in nature should be paid for out of party, not government, funds.
"They are using the $40-billion budget of the province to campaign," Liberal Leader Raj Sherman recently told the Herald's editorial board. "It's wrong and it's got to stop."
By blurring the lines between communication and self-promotion, the Tories are accomplishing only one thing: instant cynicism.
The Tories also spent $100,000 on a recent cabinet tour of the province and $70,000 on a caucus retreat to Jasper that opposition members called a campaign planning session.
For the first time in their 40-year history, the Tories will be launching attack ads in an election. By spending money from the public purse in their pre-campaign on soft, positive spin, perhaps it's left them more money for their advertising attacks that are specifically targeted against the Wildrose Party.
Calgary Herald, Wed Mar 7 2012
EDMONTON - The Alberta Federation of Labour says energy companies exploited a loophole in the province's drilling stimulus programs, forcing the province to spend about $2.9 billion, more than double the projected cost.
Government officials, however, say the incentive programs worked to stimulate the economy during the economic downturn and created jobs during the recession.
Federation spokesman Gil McGowan said Wednesday that documents obtained under access to information laws show it is clear the energy companies were squeezing as much out of the program as possible, at Albertans' expense.
"The governments' own staff knew that certain energy companies were gaming the system," McGowan said. "They presented that evidence to senior decision-makers within the government bureaucracy who have the ear of cabinet ministers.
"They could have taken action. They didn't."
McGowan said the federation is not against incentive programs that put people to work but that "there has to be some performance measures, there has to be some oversight.
"These foregone royalties represent the lion's share of the deficit, which the government has used to justify massive cuts to social services and public infrastructure," McGowan said.
"The government is telling Albertans the cupboard is bare for public services, but it's bare in large measure because of this irresponsible and out-of-control corporate giveaway."
Alberta's Drilling Incentive Program was announced in March 2009 to stimulate the economy during the recession.
It included three programs: the Drilling Royalty Credit, the New Well Incentive and the $30-million Orphan Well Fund.
The government originally said the incentives would cost about $1.6 billion in foregone royalty revenue over two years.
Budget documents show that in 2009, costs ballooned to $1.2 billion from the estimated $842 million. In 2010, costs surged to $1.8 billion from the original $732 million estimate.
The final price tag for the Drilling Incentive Programs was about $2.9 billion, roughly $1.3 billion over the budget.
Of that spending, the Drilling Royalty Credit accounted for $1.7 billion, more than triple the original estimated of $466 million. The New Well Incentive program cost for $1.2 billion, just over the initial estimated of $1 billion.
The documents released by the federation suggest bureaucrats knew the Drilling Royalty Credit program was going over-budget because energy companies were swapping credits on a "grey market" to increase the incentives they received.
Energy Minister Ted Morton said he was aware of the credit swapping.
"I was aware of the fact that the program was costing more than we anticipated. We looked at it, and we were getting good pick up and it was creating more jobs," Morton said.
"At the time we thought that if it gets the rigs back working again, then it's achieving its effect."
In 2009, fewer than one in five drilling rigs were working in Alberta. By 2010, that figure had climbed to one in three, due in part to the stimulus programs, Morton said.
Similarly, the number of rigs working had dropped to 141 in 2009 as a result of the recession. In 2010, 237 rigs were up and working.
Gary Leach, executive director of Small Explorers and Producers Association of Canada, said governments around the world launched stimulus packages at the time.
"I don't believe that companies were gaming the system," he said. "This wasn't a loophole. The program was designed to make sure the companies spent the money because the government wanted to make sure the companies were investing. ... These credits were designed to be transferred."
Leach said most of the money was spent in rural Alberta where "it gets turned into jobs, it gets turned into property taxes for rural areas, and it turns into royalty streams for the government.
"Two years later, I think it was a success. Nobody is looking for another one."
Edmonton Journal, Wed Mar 7 2012
Byline: Karen Kleiss