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Premiers to push Harper for big money

OTTAWA - Premiers will bring a pricey shopping list of measures they say are needed to stimulate the flagging economy as they gather Thursday for a key pre-budget meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

OTTAWA - Premiers will bring a pricey shopping list of measures they say are needed to stimulate the flagging economy as they gather Thursday for a key pre-budget meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Big new investment in job-creating infrastructure projects tops everyone's list. But the premiers also want the Jan. 27 federal budget to include more money for job training and education, enriched Employment Insurance and more federal aid for struggling industries.

Quebec's Jean Charest wants all that and more. He demanded Wednesday that the federal government back off plans to cap the growth of equalization payments to have-not provinces.

No price tag has been attached to any of the demands but the Federation of Canadian Municipalities gave a hint Wednesday of the kind of bucks involved.

It released a list of more than 1,000 "shovel-ready" municipal infrastructure projects that could be underway by spring - if the federal government antes up a cool $13.7 billion.

Transport Minister John Baird declined to say whether such a sum is realistic. But whatever the federal government provides, Baird indicated it won't be strictly for municipal roads, bridges and water systems.

He noted that provincial governments, universities, airports and ports are all seeking funds for projects of their own.

"We'll be taking a balanced approach," Baird said in an interview.

Still he added: "There'll be a big focus on municipal infrastructure."

Baird said the government will favour projects which are ready to go immediately and which can't start without a federal infusion. He also said Ottawa prefers projects whose costs are shared by the provinces and municipalities.

Harper has mused about a multiyear stimulus package in the budget of up to $30 billion. He and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty have also conceded that the government will run a hefty deficit - after presenting a fall economic statement that predicted a small surplus.

The survival of Harper's minority Conservative government hinges on the budget so the support of the premiers could be crucial.

Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said he expects the budget will require provincial participation in infrastructure projects and Ontario is prepared to do its share. But he suggested red tape that has delayed such joint projects in the past must be alleviated.

"We want to get those shovels in the ground sooner rather than later. We don't want the recession to be over by the time we get infrastructure dollars spent," he said.

Among other things, there is broad agreement among first ministers that Ottawa should eliminate, where possible, the requirement for federal environmental assessments of projects that have already received environmental stamps of approval from provincial governments.

The premiers will meet Thursday afternoon before heading on to an evening sitdown with Harper and the leaders of five national aboriginal groups. Harper and the premiers will then meet again Friday.

This will be the first formal first ministers' meeting Harper has held during his three years in office. He has met informally with premiers several times over dinner or lunch - the last time only two months ago to discuss the global economic crisis.

Although the meeting is being held little more than a week before the budget is unveiled, McGuinty and Manitoba's Gary Doer insisted Wednesday that they can still influence the content of the economic blueprint.

"It really is a magnificent opportunity to influence the next federal budget and I think there's a lot of common ground," McGuinty said.

Doer noted that Ottawa has been engaged in intensive consultations with the provinces well in advance of Friday's gathering.

Provincial official don't expect Friday's meeting to produce any specific announcements on how Ottawa intends to stimulate the economy or insulate Canada from the worldwide financial meltdown. Such measures - and the price tags attached - likely won't be unveiled until the budget.

However, there does appear to be broad agreement on the need for more job training funds.

"The more education we can have, the more skills we can invest in, the more people we're going to have employed," Doer said in an interview.

"And we think that is a both a short-term benefit to our Canadian economy and a great long-term benefit to the social cohesion of this country."

Several provinces are also pushing for reforms to Employment Insurance, to bolster benefits and ease eligibility rules.

Most premiers have struck a co-operative tone as they prepare for the meeting. As British Columbia's Gordon Campbell put it: "We have to get through this (economic turmoil) together."

But Charest struck a more combative tone, calling the planned constraints on the growth of equalization "unacceptable." He said the Harper government achieved provincial consensus on changes to equalization two years ago and is now unilaterally changing the program without consultation.

"As far as I'm concerned, that is not the way that the federal government said it would do business. I'm asking them to respect their word and Mr. Harper to respect the commitment he made in regards to fixing this."

Quebec and Alberta are also miffed that only days before the meeting, the federal government has announced plans to proceed with a single, national securities regulator. The two provinces contend that's an unconstitutional intrusion on provincial jurisdiction.

However, Alberta's Ed Stelmach said he doesn't want Friday's focus on the economy to be sidetracked by the securities regulation issue.

Stelmach and Saskatchewan's Brad Wall Harper said they expect a fair share of any federal largesse, even though their provinces are the most economically robust.

Stelmach indicated that he wants aid for the hard-pressed forestry, energy and agriculture sectors, akin to the $4 billion in short-term loans offered last month to the Ontario's based auto industry.

"Just to pay attention to the auto industry and think that's going to save the rest of Canada is wrong," he said.

That sentiment has been echoed by New Brunswick's Shawn Graham. He's said the ravaged forestry industry is as important to his province's economic health as the auto sector is to Ontario's.

 
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