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Alberta Party candidates square off on sales tax in first leadership debate

Alberta Party candidate Rick Fraser speaks as Kara Levis and Stephen Mandel listen during the Alberta Party's first leadership debate in Edmonton on Jan. 24, 2018.

JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Alberta Party's leadership candidates squared off on money in their first debate, with candidate Kara Levis saying it's time to explore a provincial sales tax.

"It's time to lay everything on the table," Levis told more than 300 people at the debate on the University of Alberta campus Wednesday night.

"I would really like to see us start to consider a value added point of sale tax," she said. "That's a source of revenue that we really haven't been able to talk about, and none of our opponents have had the courage to talk about that in the past.

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"I think that's what's going to make the Alberta Party stand out in the 2019 election."

Levis, a Calgary energy lawyer, said a stable base of revenue is needed, particularly for day-to-day program spending, as Alberta works to diversify the economy and get off the what she called the resource revenue roller-coaster.

Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government is borrowing billions of dollars to fund capital projects and program spending as the economy rebounds from low oil prices.

Leadership candidates Stephen Mandel and Rick Fraser, both members of the former Progressive Conservative government, questioned going down the sales tax road.

Mandel, the former mayor of Edmonton, said any governing party can't go to Albertans for more money until it gets its fiscal house in order and improves its spending.

"No. 1 is to sit back and look at what we're spending and show how we can balance our chequebook," said Mandel.

"I don't believe we should be looking at mandating more taxes to the public. It's not a popular issue."

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Mandel also said he would put any sales tax to a referendum.

Fraser, a recent United Conservative Party legislature member who crossed the floor to the Alberta Party, said the focus has to be on growing revenue, but not with a sales tax.

"It's about growing the top line and not always moving to taxes," said Fraser.

"If we continue to just focus on taxes and not think about growing the revenue, the province is going to be in big, big trouble down the road."

Sales tax has been a controversial topic in Alberta for decades.

The Progressive Conservatives never brought in a sales tax, and Notley has said from her first days as premier she will not bring one in either.

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Economists meeting late last year with Finance Minister Joe Ceci reiterated that a sales tax is an economically sound source of revenue, but Notley has said it would be disastrous to impose one on Alberta's economy, which remains fragile despite signs of growth.

Opposition United Conservative party leader Jason Kenney has stressed he wants low tax regimes to aid working families and deliver incentives to entrepreneurs to grow the economy.

Kenney has promised to repeal Notley's carbon tax, on home and business heating bills and gas at the pumps.

Fraser and Mandel also criticized the carbon tax Wednesday, saying it hurts small business and is fundamentally unfair given that middle and low-income earners get rebates to offset the cost of the levy.

"Certain people pay and other people don't. I think that sends the wrong message," said Mandel.

Kenny's party is also debating whether to bring back the 10 per cent flat tax on income, which was scrapped by Notley's NDP in 2015.

All three Alberta party candidates said the NDP's new progressive system is fair and workable.

The next debate is in Calgary on Feb. 8.

The leader is be to be chosen Feb. 27.

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