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Alberta's fiscal woes will be laid bare in new legislative session

EDMONTON - Alberta politicians will be searching for ways to cushion the impact of a sagging energy economy as they return for a new sitting of the legislature this week.

EDMONTON - Alberta politicians will be searching for ways to cushion the impact of a sagging energy economy as they return for a new sitting of the legislature this week.

New numbers from Statistics Canada show that 5,700 jobs evaporated in the province last month.

"The primary focus of this session will be on jobs," Premier Ed Stelmach has told reporters. "How we can keep Albertans working."

Stelmach says the province has billions of dollars in reserve, so there won't be major cuts to such core programs as health care or education.

"We've got $6 billion set aside for capital," he said. "That's cash to build a considerable amount of infrastructure. There's also the $7.7 billion Sustainability Fund that will cushion the impact of rapidly declining resource revenues so we can maintain the programs people require."

In speeches in Edmonton and Calgary last week, Stelmach promised short-term relief for junior energy firms if they drill new wells during the current slump. He called the announcement a signal to lenders to extend credit to small and mid-sized companies struggling to finance operations in Alberta.

Financial problems aren't just happening in Alberta's two major cities, he said, "it's in small hamlets and villages as well ... it's in tire shops, restaurants and motels."

The opposition is looking for decisive action to stabilize job losses. But Laurie Blakeman, house leader for the Alberta Liberals, says there's no need to panic.

"I think we need to calm down," Blakeman said in an interview. "Be efficient, but don't be stupid. You have to keep investing in the infrastructure and that also creates jobs and keeps the economy moving forward."

Word has leaked out that the provincial budget will be delayed by two months - until April. After 15 years of enjoying surplus budgets, Alberta is scrambling to balance spending with plunging revenues.

Economist Andre Plourde says government spending in the province has been growing rapidly over several years, which creates pressure when annual revenues fall by billions of dollars.

"This really creates a lot of difficulty for Alberta over the next while," he said. "How long will this last is a big question. Even if the needed revenues can be drawn from these (reserve) funds, it's clear that the next five years will not look anything like the previous five years."

The marquee piece of legislation this spring - Bill 1-will see the premier doing a little flag-waving by protecting jobs held by army reservists. He says he wants to ensure that soldiers returning for a second or third combat tour of Afghanistan will have a job when they return to Alberta in these uncertain economic times.

"This bill is in support of our reservists that are protecting our rights and freedoms in Kandahar and other places in the Middle East," he said. "This is really for all Albertans that truly support our troops in combat."

The spring sitting is to open Tuesday with a throne speech outlining the government's priorities for the session. It's expected that more than 50 pieces of legislation will be introduced, including one to create a $2-billion fund for research and development of carbon capture and storage, the cornerstone of Alberta's strategy to reduce emissions that cause global warming.

Another bill would implement a new land-use framework that divides Alberta into seven regions, each with a unique set of rules for recreational, industrial and agricultural land use.

The 83 elected members are expected to work in the chamber until late May or early June before breaking for the summer.

 
 
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