Alberta lawmakers have been tasked with a once-in-a-generation overhaul of Canada's economic engine as their province faces a fiscal crisis brought on by a crash in oil prices.
Premier Jim Prentice promises to use the legislative spring session that begins Tuesday to tackle a budget deficit that could surpass $7.5-billion. However, opposition leaders say they will make the Progressive Conservative Leader explain recent comments where he seemed to blame the province's fiscal woes on Albertans.
"People don't trust him," said Heather Forsyth, interim leader of the Official Opposition Wildrose Party. "He blames Albertans for his government's legacy of waste and mismanagement."
In a radio show last week, Mr. Prentice told Albertans that they only had to "look in the mirror" to see who was responsible for the province's troubles. Despite calls for an apology, Mr. Prentice has not retracted his statement. He has admitted he may have poorly communicated what he meant.
Since then, the government has been muted about what new laws it expects to pass.
"There are three priorities: the budget, the budget and the budget," government House Leader Jonathan Denis said Monday afternoon of the document to be unveiled March 26.
Mr. Prentice has long said that all Albertans will need to do more with less as his government looks to increase revenue and cut spending. While newly printed legislative calendars run to June, few legislators expect to sit for more than a few weeks before the Premier calls a snap election.
"The legislative agenda is about as heavy as fairy dust and we will go through it at about that speed,'" said Liberal House Leader Laurie Blakeman.
Nearly six months into his time in office, Mr. Prentice has conquered the Wildrose opposition that bedevilled his predecessors, rebuilt his party's link with rural voters, killed unpopular plans for new licence plates and sold off much of the fleet of government aircraft that had been seen as symbols of an out-of-touch Tory establishment.
However, as Mr. Prentice looks to concentrate on a 10-year plan to balance the province's books, he will face a slew of political problems. The largest among them will be how government and opposition MLAs accept the defection of nine members of the Wildrose opposition to Mr. Prentice's government in the last weeks of 2014.
The largest floor crossing in Alberta history saw most of the Wildrose MLAs follow then-leader Danielle Smith to the Tories – the party she and her lieutenants had attacked for years. A number of Tory MLAs continue to be uncomfortable with the mass defection, and Ms. Smith has admitted the process was far rockier than she had expected. Ms. Forsyth said on Monday that many in the province found the floor crossing "distasteful and revolting."
Mr. Prentice has committed to resolving Alberta's ongoing tussle about allowing gay-straight alliances in schools. A bill debated last December unleashed torrents of outrage by giving school boards final say on the establishment of the gay-support clubs.
The province's religious school boards have said they would use the bill to stop children from meeting on school grounds with the purpose of discussing sexual orientation. The government is working on an amendment but has yet to say what it will change.
Ms. Blakeman had introduced a private member's bill that would have required schools to accommodate the clubs. "I hope they do the right thing," she said. "Well, actually I don't. If they don't, it'll be an election issue."
The Premier will also face an ethics commissioner report from January which said the province's unelected education minister used "blatant political opportunism" during a campaign to win his first seat.
The opposition is also planning to continue protests from February when Mr. Prentice publicly overruled an independent legislative committee that had restored funding to the auditor-general. Within days, the independent committee met again and made the cut requested by the Premier.