CEO of AACL on Premier’s Promise to Boost AISH

February 9, 2012

Alberta’s most vulnerable residents are hoping for a hike in their income in today’s provincial budget, while smokers and drinkers are bracing for possible hikes in liquor and tobacco taxes.

Conservative Premier Alison Redford has promised to boost the monthly income for Alberta’s 45,000 severely handicapped by $400 and all signals point to her fulfilling that promise.

“The premier has said ‘stayed tuned,’ but she is a premier who has demonstrated she keeps her commitments,” said Jay O’Neill, a spokesman for the premier’s office.

Seniors Minister George VanderBurg also dropped several strong hints in the legislature Wednesday, telling opposition parties to “listen carefully” to the budget.

“There are vulnerable Albertans with many situations that are very, very difficult. Today’s $1,188 top-up is not enough and we have to do something,” he said. “Wait ’til tomorrow.”

There was no indication, however, when the $400 hike would be implemented or whether it will be phased in over several years.

Robin Cummings, a 44 year old Calgary woman who receives money through the Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH) program, said she has to sell DVDs at a pawnshop or dip into emergency funds sometimes to make ends meet.

An extra $400 a month, she said, would significantly help her and others on AISH.

“That will make a big difference on people not running out of things, not running out of food, not having to borrow money,” said Cummings, who suffers from mental health issues and epilepsy.

Bruce Uditsky, executive director of the Alberta Association for Community Living, said he has every expectation the premier will honour her repeated commitment to handicapped Albertans.

“A lot of people’s lives are on hold given the limited income they have today and they are just scraping by, so if the promise is fulfilled, this would make a huge difference,” he said.

During the PC party leadership race last year, Redford also pledged to double the amount AISH recipients are allowed to earn before the government starts clawing back the income subsidy.

Today’s new spending blueprint is expected to be Alberta’s fifth-consecutive deficit, although the province has been covering the shortfalls with money from a multibillion-dollar sustainability fund, rather than borrowing.

With a general election anticipated within two months, Redford is not expected to make dramatic cuts and hike taxes, but sources say she is wrestling to keep the deficit below $2 billion.

(In the current fiscal year ending this March, the province is forecasting a $3-billion shortfall on $40 billion of spending.)

In the province’s long-term forecast in last year’s budget, the governing Progressive Conservatives predicted a deficit of $680 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year.

However, low natural gas prices could push the red ink as high as $3 billion for 2012-13 unless there are cuts or savings in this budget, said the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Alberta director Scott Hennig said the province may hike fees and so-called sin taxes on alcohol and tobacco.

“They are looking for revenue and they’re looking for the least likely place people will moan about it,” he said. “If I was a smoker I would be picking up a few extra packs. If I am a beer drinker maybe I am considering running to the beer store to pick up an extra case, just in case.”

He said any major cuts or hikes before the election would politically be “playing with fire.”

Redford told a Calgary radio talk show Wednesday she didn’t think deep cuts are required.

“My view is it’s just not necessary,” she said.

“We can accomplish what we need to accomplish by doing the work we need to do around results-based budgeting and making sure we invest in Alberta.”

Guy Smith, president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, said the civil service is already cut to the bone.

At the legislature, Finance Minister Ron Liepert said he will deliver a responsible budget but offered no details. He pulled out a cheap pair of loafers he plans to wear budget day and later donate to charity, saying they represent the frugality of his government.

“I think it also sends the signal that we are a Conservative government and this budget, while it is progressive, is also going to be very conservative in many ways,” he said.

The government signalled in Tuesday’s throne speech it planned to provide stable three-year funding plans for education and municipalities so they can plan for the future.

With files from Kelly Cryderman, and Jason Markusoff, Calgary Herald dhenton@calgaryherald.com

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