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Stronger oil price helps Alberta's budget

A Talisman pump jack in Alberta

Larry MacDougal

What slashed royalties have taken away from Alberta's treasury, an oil patch land-buying spree has returned to it.

Strong oil prices helped the province keep its numbers almost exactly in line with expectations, adding just $7-million to a projected, and record-setting, $4.76-billion deficit this year.

That number has been maintained despite wild fluctuations, including an extra $1.2-billion in revenue - from oil and gas land sales and an $887-million surge in corporate income tax - offset by an $866-million drop in personal income tax and a $698-million hit from drilling incentives the province unveiled as part of its royalty rollback earlier this year.

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The province also accrued an extra $534-million in costs related to a year of weather disasters which created floods, forest fires and agricultural damage.

Together, the added revenues almost completely negated the added costs, creating a symmetry some attributed to luck but Finance Minister Ted Morton attributed to good financial preparation.

"It's good planning. We've taken a balanced and cautious approach," he said Wednesday, when the province released its quarterly fiscal update, which includes April through June. "Alberta is doing better than any other province. But we are an export-based economy, so what happens in the global economy affects us here at home."

Mr. Morton rejected suggestions that the provincial royalty cuts, which were partially responsible for the increased land sales, have traded off long-term revenue decreases for a short-term windfall. The decreased royalties will, instead, increase activity in the province in coming years, which should generate more revenue, he said.

The province continues to be on track for a balanced budget by 2012, Mr. Morton added , although opposition parties expressed skepticism over that claim.

"This budget continues to be a train wreck," said Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, pointing to $2.8-billion in borrowing for capital projects as evidence that the deficit far exceeds what the province has admitted to.

"We face a total cash shortfall of $7.6-billion," she said. "They're blowing through our savings."

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For Alberta's ruling Conservative party, the provincial dependency on oil and gas - and the whiplash that dependency has created in recent years - has renewed calls for a sales tax. Mr. Morton said Tuesday that the province is looking at "all options" for the future.

But, he said, "for the time being, this government doesn't have any intention of changing that."

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