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Free tuition and Dani-dollars - Alberta's election spending spree begins

Alberta Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith are shown in a photo combination.

The Canadian Press

An overhauled health care system flush with cash, $300 cheques to voters and free post-secondary tuition – all promises that would be a pipe dream in most other provinces, but it's just business as usual on the Alberta campaign trail.

After a week of personal attacks and surprising polls, Alberta's would-be premiers turned on Monday to out-bidding each other, banking on the province's massive looming surpluses to woo voters to the polls on April 23.

-The right-wing Wildrose party pledged to issue resource "dividends" of about $300 to each Albertan by 2015 using a portion of any surpluses;

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- The Liberals promised to slash tuition fees – with the goal of eliminating them altogether by 2025 – and raise taxes on the rich;

- The Progressive Conservatives laid out a plan to overhaul health care, which already got a boost this year in the form of a 7.9 per cent increase to the health ministry's budget.

All this after the PCs last week pledged $150-million annually for energy-sector research (or $3-billion over 20 years), with Wildrose offering voters $130-million annually for a child tax credit.

The ideas might seem to be pie in the sky (and rare, as Ottawa and other provinces eye cuts to get back in the black), but economists agree Alberta could easily pay for any one of them. The provincial treasury is set to overflow as the oil sands hit their stride, with a $5-billion surplus expected by 2014-2015, and the new health transfer formula will mean another $1.1-billion from Ottawa beginning that year.

Such are the stakes in this campaign, where polls are tight, showing Wildrose could end 41 years of PC rule. Whoever takes over the premier's office will be in charge of a province flush with cash and debt-free and can shape Alberta and the country for years to come.

"The question we need to start talking about is what do we want the future of this province to look like?" Ms. Redford said on Monday.

For the PCs, it means pouring cash into health care, education and infrastructure. For Wildrose, it means saving money and rebating surpluses. The Liberals and New Democrats would like to end decades of conservative government, but trail in the polls.

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The vision of Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is one of child tax credits, a no-deficit law, a pledge to put half of all surpluses into the province's Heritage Fund and another 20 per cent into a trust to pay the dividend – quickly dubbed "Smithbucks" or "Danidollars" online. Rebates are better, Ms. Smith said Monday, than "squandering surplus funds on pet projects and more government waste."

To rein in spending, Wildrose would slow infrastructure plans and cap spending growth. The PCs warn that would mean less money for health, education and infrastructure.

On Monday, Ms. Redford announced she'd create 140 family care clinics, essentially revamping doctor's offices and public clinics into multidisciplinary health centres. She has already opened three pilot projects. They're of particular demand, she said, in small communities such as Strathmore, a town of 12,000 just east of Calgary, where Ms. Redford made her announcement. Rural areas are where Wildrose has surged in popularity.

Ms. Redford said it could be done within the existing health budget. Wildrose warned the concept is unproven and too costly.

Liberal leader Raj Sherman called his opponents' plans vote-buying, but defended his pledge to divert energy revenues into a trust fund and use the annual returns to cut tuition until it's covered by the trust.

"Our policy is smarter. Ours is an investment that will generate returns for generations," Dr. Sherman said. "Theirs is about buying votes."

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Ms. Smith has already pledged several cash incentives, including a $500 children's culture, arts and sports tax credit, a $2,000 child tax credit – which could save families up to $200 for every child under 18 – and a ban on mandatory school fees, which cost each student on average more than $100 a year.

The Wildrose surplus rebate plan evokes former PC premier Ralph Klein's one-time Prosperity Bonus (or "Ralph Bucks") in 2005, which saw every Albertan receive a $400 cheque and cost the province $1.4-billion.

Ronald Kneebone, a University of Calgary economist, has been urging the PCs for years to rein in spending and save more – he applauded the Wildrose plan to commit to saving and cap spending at population growth plus inflation, but there's a caveat.

"That's great, except you tell me how you're going to do that with respect to health care," he said, adding that costs are expected to rise and Wildrose's austerity pledge will mean slower spending growth. Doling out rebates would just "exacerbate" an already hot economy, he added, which was the case during the last boom when residents spent their Ralph Bucks on new televisions and other carefree spending.

That said, each party's pledge is affordable in the province. Now it's up to voters.

"Nothing's impossible," Prof. Kneebone said. "There's lots of choices for governments to make. Some of these are pretty stark."

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