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The rush to spend Alberta's windfall is on

Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith makes a policy announcement in Okotoks, Alberta.

Jeff McIntosh/CP/Jeff McIntosh/CP

Sweeping promises to slash the family budget by dangling cold-hard cash and other financial incentives has now turned the election campaign in oil-rich Alberta into an escalating game of high-stakes poker.

To kick off the second week of the month-long campaign, the Alberta Liberals pledged Monday to eliminate tuition fees by 2025, and if elected to form the next government, the party will start to pare back post-secondary education costs by $250 immediately.

Campaigning in Edmonton Leader Raj Sherman said the ambitious goal is possible through his party's Fair Tax plan, which forces larger corporations and the 10 per cent of Albertans with incomes exceeding $100,000 annually, to pay more in provincial income tax.

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Dr. Sherman, who is a former emergency room physician, said the Liberal tuition platform is "the most aggressive in the nation," but one that is based on achievable budgeting.

He accused the Wildrose and Tories essentially of bribing Albertans.

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

"We're the invest and return Liberals. They're the bribe and buy vote Conservatives," he added.

The Liberals, which had Official Opposition status with eight seats during the last session, are polling well back of the right-leaning Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose Party, leaving them in a battle for third with the NDP.

But that hasn't stopped the frontrunners from also offering goodies to the Alberta electorate.

Following in the footsteps of Ralph Klein populism, Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith has announced that if elected premier, she would introduce "energy dividends," which could mean $300 tax-free to each Albertan in 2015.

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Symbolically, Ms. Smith made the campaign pledge Monday while standing near a pump jack north of Calgary, where she promised to direct 20 per cent of future surpluses generated by oil and gas royalties into the pockets of Albertans.

With Alberta's population pegged most recently by Statistics Canada at more than 3.6 million, the initiative could cost government coffers around $1.1-billion annually.

Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford dismissed the promise as one that - combined with Wildrose pledges to not add taxes, add $185-billion to the heritage fund currently valued at $15-billion and bring in tax credits - will mean cuts elsewhere.

"It's another daily announcement that just doesn't add up," Ms. Redford said.

"So the question must be asked - if there are these daily announcements without understanding or being prepared to explain the overall framework, where do we end up losing? Where do we end up making those hard choices? And my fear is we end up losing on education, on health care, on infrastructure."

In 2005, when Mr. Klein was Progressive Conservative premier, he announced a similar $400 rebate, which was quickly dubbed "Ralph Bucks." It cost the province about $1.4-billion and while popular with residents, was maligned by economists.

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Ms. Smith was quick to defend the proposal explaining that the 20 per cent surplus would be socked into an Alberta Energy Dividend Fund and when the fund exceeds $750-million, that's when Albertans will receive payouts. She said her new fund is projected to reach $1-billion by 2014-15, which could mean more than $300 per Albertan three years from now.

The so-called "Ralph Bucks" were a one-off program that was even "less impactful" than the Wildrose plan, but Ms. Redford isn't sold on its impact.

"I would ask them what did that money actually do for you?... That money didn't actually connect to anything long-term," she said, adding money is better spent on schools and health care as Alberta welcomes waves of new residents.

"I'd be very surprised if many Albertans didn't already think that we were benefiting from that resource revenue on a daily basis," she said. "[A rebate]is not something that can be done just at the snap of a finger with something that's not connected to anything else."

Ms. Smith, has already pledged numerous 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 will waive all mandatory school fees, which cost each student on average more than $100 a year.

Ms. Smith said energy dividends are a "responsible way" to ensure residents share in the province's resource wealth and would only be paid when the province runs a surplus. Last week, Wildrose said it would direct half of any budget surplus toward the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, with an eye to growing it to a value of $200-billion over the next two decades.

Not to be outdone, Ms. Redford's government would continue to spend on education and grade-school education. On Monday morning, she announced a plan to create 140 "family care clinics" over the next three years.

It's part of her move to overhaul Alberta's healthcare system, but details are vague. The clinics aren't necessary new buildings, but rather being revamped as multi-disciplinary clinics open for longer hours as a way to cut red tape and improve small-town healthcare. Ms. Redford opened three pilot-project clinics before the election began - one in Edmonton, one in Calgary and one in fire-ravaged Slave Lake, Alta. The model, Wildrose says, is unproven.

She expects the clinics can be developed within the existing health budget, funding for which was boosted 7.9 per cent by Ms. Redford's government in a budget passed last month. (Wildrose dismissed this, asking why the PCs didn't include costing details.)

"This is fundamental," Ms. Redford said, standing with about a dozen party supporters in Strathmore Monday morning. "This is about cooperation, a team-based approach at the operational level."

She contrasted her approach with that of Wildrose, saying they're ignoring the long-term challenges facing the province as it continues to grow.

"[Voters]can have confidence that this government will continue to invest," she said.

Whether you call it investing, rebating or spending, each party has a plan for Alberta's windfall.

Voters go to the polls April 23.

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