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CALGARY, Alberta, March 24 (Reuters) - Alberta, the Canadian province that is the largest source of U.S. crude oil imports, will ask citizens to pay more for health care and cut the amount of resource revenue used to fund government operations as it looks to return to a balanced budget in fiscal 2017, Premier Jim Prentice said on Tuesday.
The province, which has no sales tax and Canada's lowest personal tax burden, is looking to make up for a C$7 billion ($5.6 billion) revenue shortfall in the fiscal year beginning April 1 as low oil prices slash its take from the energy industry.
In the text of a televised speech to the province two days before he releases his government's first budget, Prentice warned that without changes, the province's revenue shortfall would total C$20 billion over the next three years even as he pledged to keep expenditures flat.
"The revenue shortfall will be decreased gradually and steadily - not suddenly - which would cause hardships to our most vulnerable citizens and impact our economy," Prentice said. "If we stick to this plan, we will be back to a balanced budget by 2017, even if oil prices do not recover as much as forecast."
Though he did not offer specifics on how the province will fund its revenue shortfall, Prentice said some of the money will come from asking Albertans to contribute directly to the costs of the province's free healthcare system.
"When we present our new budget, we will be asking Albertans to begin to contribute directly to the costs of the health system," he said. "This revenue will start small but it will grow over three years."
The former federal minister and investment banker who took over as leader of the province's ruling Progressive Conservative party in September, also said he wants to reduce the amount of royalty cash used to fund the government's operations.
In the 2018-2019 fiscal year 25 percent of the province's energy revenue to will be directed to rebuilding an emergency fund and paying down debt. That will rise to 50 percent the next year, with half of the money put into the province's savings fund.
$1 = 1.2500 Canadian dollars Reporting by Scott Haggett; Editing by Cynthia Osterman