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Understanding Alberta's 2014 budget: The deviltry's in the details

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Alison Redford

Another million dollars for the Premier's Office?

Now that's interesting!

As in Pravda back in the day in that other one-party state, the name of which escapes me at the moment but which you'd think was still around judging from the chest-thumping 1960s-style rhetoric flowing from our national capital, the big news is never under the darkest headline on the front page. It's buried in the details on the back page.

"Alberta budget sees $2.6 billion surplus, $5.1 billion in new debt," bellowed the headline on the Edmonton Journal's website yesterday evening, which, in defence of the poor sluggo who wrote it, is pretty much where you have to go with a story like this if you’re paid to write about it.

Well, it's an operating surplus, just to quibble a little like a Wildroser might, but there will be, read their lips, no new taxes.

This should spark an entertaining but meaningless row among the usual suspects on the right and the farther right about whether or not debt is a good thing -- which, if it works as it's presumably intended to, will allow Premier Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives to portray themselves as slightly progressive again.

Not that progressive, though. If you're a public employee you'll have noticed in Finance Minister Doug Horner's Budget Speech yesterday that despite the Orwellian commentary the government is still after your pension. Just progressive enough.

The trouble with government budgets, of course, is that they're political documents -- they're hard to understand because they’re meant to be hard to understand, and they don't come with standard accountant’s disclaimers as would a corporate report that plays fast and loose with a fact or two.

Good luck with it being the distraction it's meant to be, though, since it sounds as if there's a whole closet-full of other shoes to drop about the goings on at the highest levels of this government -- including alienated senior staffers, a security detail in turmoil, more embarrassing overseas travel bills and what might be described as a fin de siècle atmosphere among certain political staff.

If any of that stuff hits the news pages, yesterday's year-early election budget may seem like it's a day late and a billion dollars short!

Still, getting back to that tidbit about the extra million for the PO, if that's the right abbreviation, it's buried in deep yesterday's budget documents and it's a little more than $1.2 million, actually -- $12.8 million next year versus $11.6 million this year.

So let's just think about this for a moment.

Ed Stelmach, Alberta's last PC premier, used to get by with a personal office staff of 13, including administrative support in Edmonton and Calgary.

Alas, the link on the government's website to the document with the premier's office budget for Stelmach's last year on the job has disappeared. There's probably a reason for that. I promise to follow this question up with a government documents librarian of my acquaintance.

Staff details or a list of positions for the current premier's office staff are similarly hard to come by on short notice, but Redford's staff is already said to be more than twice the size of Stelmach's.

That's without the infusion of another $1 million.

In Stelmach's day, staff in Calgary occupied a single office in the McDougall Centre, now they occupy four.

As befits the leader of the larger staff, presumably, Redford's chief of staff is the third highest paid employee of the Alberta government. Last year he received a 52-per-cent pay increase. Perhaps a portion of this year's 10-per-cent increase to the Premier's Office budget is to be swallowed up in another big raise for the chief. Or maybe for the communications director.

Regardless, the good times continue to roll in the premier's office -- at least if you're not assigned security duties.

As the Alberta NDP put it in a news release: "Times are good for PC insiders and corporations."

So come budget time, what more do you really need to know?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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