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With the Alberta economy clobbered by the oil price shock, Premier Jim Prentice is warning of ‘challenging’ financial climate.

Ben Nelms/The Globe and Mail

Premier Jim Prentice has made the clearest statement yet that he intends to call a snap election this spring, a year before the date set by Alberta's fixed election law, with the official opposition in disarray and the province facing deep deficits from a crash in oil prices.

Speaking on an Alberta-wide radio broadcast, Mr. Prentice said he faces "very, very tough choices" to fix a $7-billion deficit that could take years to erase.

"I think it's completely unrealistic to expect that any government or any premier could deal with what has to be dealt with here without public support, and the best way to have public support is to have voters choose," he said Friday morning.

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The Premier assumed office on Sept. 15 after winning a Progressive Conservative leadership race and has yet to face a general election. After the radio show, Mr. Prentice's office reiterated that "no decision has been made" about an early election.

Alberta New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley says she's been preparing for a spring vote since the start of the year. Her party's full slate of candidates will be in place. "We will absolutely be ready. I'm quite convinced we'll go to the polls this spring."

The province's official opposition Wildrose Party is in danger.

Former leader Danielle Smith led eight MLAs in a mass defection in December to the Tories, leaving only five elected members behind. On Friday, the party scheduled a leadership vote for June 6. Until then, interim leader Heather Forsyth will lead Wildrose. However, Ms. Forsyth has said she will not run in the next election.

"We'll be as prepared as we can be if he snaps an election," Wildrose House Leader Shayne Saskiw told The Globe. "We're planning as if the Premier keeps his word and abides by Alberta law."

Under the province's four-year-old fixed-election law, a vote must be held between March and May, 2016. However, Mr. Prentice said Friday that the law is "flexible" and allows the premier to call an election. Ms. Notley agreed that the Tories, who have held office uninterrupted for 43 years, wrote a loophole into the law that allows for a snap vote.

Elections Alberta does not set rules for debates, so a leader who is not on any ballot could still take part.

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"I said to my party and I'll say to the opposition parties: 'You'd better be ready,'" Mr. Prentice said.

Ms. Forsyth and Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman were both on vacation Friday and could not be reached.

Alberta's economic fortunes have dimmed quickly since Mr. Prentice was sworn in. The Conference Board of Canada has warned that a recession is now likely in the province. With the price of a barrel of oil having fallen 60 per cent since June, hundreds of drilling rigs are being idled in the oil patch and thousands of jobs have been cut. After years of large increases, house prices in Calgary and Edmonton are stagnant and could start to fall unless the price of oil begins to increase quickly.

"We are in the most challenging financial and economic circumstances we've seen in our province in a generation," Mr. Prentice said.

Planning for a provincial budget in late March or early April, Mr. Prentice said the Alberta budget has "a structural problem as far as the eye can see." He has previously stated that province is facing an $18-billion deficit over the next three years.

To begin fixing the problem, he's promised "the most important budget we've seen in a generation." The document will include a five-year spending plan that the Premier said will change the size of Alberta's government, the wages it pays employees, the taxes it charges residents and the deficits it will run.

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"It will repair the problems we have in our public finances over the next five years," he said.

After spending early January mulling a sales tax, the Premier has now turned his attention to the province's flat 10-per-cent tax. On Friday, he said that the tax was unfair to the province's low- and middle-income earners.

He used his own mother as an example. "She was making $20,000 a year, she was a pensioner, and she was paying the same tax rate I was in the banking sector," he said.

On Friday, former health minister Fred Horne announced he would not run for re-election. Mr. Horne had been one of former premier Alison Redford's most high-profile ministers. After Ms. Redford resigned over a scandal, Mr. Horne was placed in the back corner of the legislature by Mr. Prentice. On Thursday, Ms. Redford's former finance minister, Doug Horner, announced he is resigning at the end of the month.

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