Premier Danielle Smith uncorked a flurry of anti-inflation benefits, including a $600 payment over six months for all seniors and most families with children under 18, during a televised address Tuesday night.
The total cost to the Treasury is expected to be $2.4 billion for all the measures, which also include tax relief for fuel and personal income.
This is the largest pre-election package an Alberta government has ever offered. The vote is next May 29 and the UCP is still behind in the polls. The inaugural ball is called the Inflation Relief Act.
The $600 will be paid for each senior and child in families with household incomes below $180,000 per year. Smith said it is intended to include all “middle-income” families.
The same $600 amount will go to all recipients of AISH and PDD benefits, as well as those on income support.
Smith also promised that the entire provincial fuel tax would be effectively abolished.
The current 4.5 cents per liter tax, restored by former premier Jason Kenney, will be removed.
Smith said the full 13-cent tax holiday would be extended for at least six months, from January to June.
All provincial income tax brackets will be re-indexed to inflation for the 2022 tax year, meaning people will pay less tax or get rebates.
The deindexation of the Kenney era will in fact be abolished in every area, including social payments.
Re-indexing will apply to AISH, PDD, income support, the seniors benefit and the Alberta child and family benefit. Recipients will begin receiving higher payments in January.
An increased rebate on electricity bills would provide each household with an additional $200 through the winter, Smith said.
Winter price increases will be “capped” by the government. The current natural gas rebate program will continue.
In concluding this remarkable relief package, the premier also pledged to “invest in food banks and expand low-income transit passes to ensure every Albertan has access to food and mobility for their families.”
“I will ensure that every decision our government makes from now until this crisis is over balances affordability for Albertans with the need for continued balanced budgets and fiscal responsibility,” Smith said.
While the benefits are not universal, the costs of this program are unprecedented.
Former Premier Ralph Klein’s “Ralph bucks” — a $400 check to every Albertan in 2005 — cost the Treasury $1.4 billion in the more valuable dollars of that era.
The UCP considered a similar general program, but estimated that it would cost $5 billion today, rather than the $2.4 billion offered. It may rise with other measures.
Referring to surpluses due to high oil prices, Smith said, “because our province’s financial house is in order, we have the ability to assist Albertans through times of crisis, just like this one.”
Dealing with two other topics, health care and relations with Ottawa, Smith stuck to her hardline positions.
She reiterated her belief that “we have way too many managers and consultants, and not enough health workers on the front lines looking after patients.”
Without announcing specific measures, she promised more professionals in emergency rooms, shorter times to get patients transferred from ambulances to hospital care, and more surgeries performed with shorter wait times.
And she promised one of the most difficult achievements of all – devolving more health decision-making to local communities and healthcare workers on the ground.
But Smith also tried to temper the high expectations she raised with her leadership rhetoric. “It will take time and patience, but I am confident it will lead to better health care for Albertans,” she said.
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She repeated her promise to bring in her Sovereignty Act, now summarized as: “The Alberta Sovereignty Within A United Canada Act.”
She said “these ongoing federal attacks on our economy and provincial rights cannot be allowed to continue . . . The federal government’s treatment of all provinces, especially Alberta, is unacceptable.”
Finally, the Prime Minister urged people not to judge her by her many controversial statements when she was in media and advocacy roles.
The current controversy is over her earlier statements that Health Savings Accounts would pave the way for private payment for health care – a position her staff says she no longer holds.
“I know I’m far from perfect and I make mistakes,” she said, without detailing any specific missteps.
“Having spent decades in the media and hosting talk shows, I’ve discussed hundreds of different topics and taken sometimes controversial positions, many of which have evolved or changed as I’ve grown and listened to you.”
Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald