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Canada Alberta to spend $10-million to hand out cheques

It is no longer called the "prosperity bonus," but Albertans finally learned yesterday how the provincial government plans to dole out at least $1.4-billion in dividend cheques.

Many have been eagerly awaiting the details since Premier Ralph Klein announced in September that a plan was in the works to give all residents, including the homeless, a small slice of the province's ballooning unbudgeted surplus.

Fuelled by oil and natural-gas royalties, the surplus could be as high as $8.8-billion this year, Mr. Klein said recently.

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But the one-time dividend, which government officials now call a "resource rebate," has not been free of controversy.

There has been criticism that the money could be better spent -- for example, on eliminating health-care premiums -- and that the $400 cheques may promote national envy of the province's wealth.

"I don't know where that comes from," Finance Minister Shirley McClellan told reporters yesterday.

The program is expected to cost $10-million to administer.

She said Alberta residents deserve the cheques, which are to be mailed in January, and should not feel guilty about spending the money.

"The economic growth of this province is primarily, in my view, due to the fact we have very strong fiscal management."

Ms. McClellan added that other provinces could follow Alberta's lead. "Every province has their strength."

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The government plans to use 2004 federal tax returns to compile a list of recipients. Anyone who has lived in Alberta since Sept. 1, 2005, and filed a Canadian income-tax return last year is eligible. That includes students attending school in other provinces.

Cheques for Albertans 18 and under will be sent to a parent or guardian. Ms. McClellan said the government plans to work with social agencies to give cheques to the homeless.

The only people being frozen out are prisoners. And, Ms. McClellan said the government will make deductions from the cheques of people who owe child-support payments.

There will not be an attempt, however, to collect on debts such as student loans and income-tax arrears.

Mr. Klein said yesterday that the cheques are just one part of a three-pronged plan to deal with the unbudgeted surplus. The rest of the money will be saved or spent on infrastructure projects.

"We have come up with a plan," he said. "Some people may not like the plan, but it is a plan."

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