Mr Salmond revealed the package of 15 bills – led by the flagship Referendum Bill, which will legislate for a vote on independence in the autumn of 2014 – during the first day of the new Parliamentary session at Holyrood.
Among the 14 other bills for the 2012-13 Holyrood session are measures to bring in same-sex marriage, create jobs, improve economic growth, make more free early learning and childcare available, and improve care for older people.
As part of further increased investment in children, parents and families, the First Minister also announced a package of £18m support for families from the Early Years Change Fund, describing it as “an investment in building the foundations of a better Scotland”
Prioritising economic growth, Mr Salmond also confirmed a switch from resource to capital spending in the Budget Bill and demanded an immediate release of capital from the UK Government in order to boost construction.
The First Minister said: “The new parliamentary session promises to be a pivotal one in the history of this country.
“Work will get under way in earnest on the Referendum Bill, laying the groundwork for Scotland’s most important decision in 300 years. Only with the full economic and decision-making powers of independence can we ensure Scotland lives up to its full potential.
“Our children and young people deserve nothing less. With the powers we do have, we have managed to secure free university education, offer the best free early learning and childcare package in the UK and guarantee a training opportunity to every 16-19 year old who is not already in education, employment or training.
“We are also investing in creating jobs and strengthening the economy – bringing forward more than £300 million of capital spending between 2008-2010, supporting 5,000 jobs, and announcing just a few weeks ago a further £105 million.
“Any plan to support growth should focus on immediate public sector capital investment and over this year and the next two, we will switch over £700m of spending from resource to capital.
“We are prioritising economic growth and Westminster must do the same. Again, I call on the Prime Minister to unlock capital investment immediately in order to boost construction – there has never been an economic recovery without a recovery in the construction sector.
“Today I am announcing a further package of investment in helping families and children during the early years. We will invest £18 million from our early Years Change Fund in supporting families – as well as introducing legislation to parliament in this session to deliver the best package of early learning and child care support in the UK.
“This legislative programme of 15 bills, with the Referendum Bill at its heart, uses all of the powers we currently have to support jobs, growth and opportunities for all and paves the way for Scotland’s most important decision in three centuries. But only with independence can we create the best possible Scotland for our future generations."
Mr Salmond said he had today visited the Dr Bell’s Family Centre in Leith, exactly the type of place which would benefit from the extra £18m investment.
“I met parents and some of the young children who would be the first to grow up in an independent Scotland. We want them to live in a fair and prosperous society that supports private enterprise and values public services. If we are to realise these aspirations to the full, we need full control over the economy and welfare policy – the normal responsibilities of any independent nation.”
Labour leader Johann Lamont said the programme for government was a wasted opportunity.
"The First Minister indulges in 'full-fat slogans' with little substance. There is nothing in it actually to address the problems which families the length and breadth of Scotland are facing," she said.
The only radical move is Mr Salmond's ambition to change his title from First Minister to Prime Minister, she said.
"When it comes to the big issues that actually affect people's lives, the poverty of his ambition borders on destitution. Here is a man who glories in his own powerlessness. He says he can't change Scotland because he doesn't have enough power. He doesn't use the power he has to change Scotland for the better," Ms Lamont said.
The SNP administration is presiding over a rise in drug-related deaths, cuts to NHS staff numbers and deteriorating care standards. The Government is bereft of policy, she said.
"Full-fat slogans, yes. But, calorie-free policy. Nothing for jobs, nothing for those in need. Slogans and soundbites with a promise: the threat you're on your own if you disagree. But reality is beginning to creep in as the spin doctors creep out."
After sustained criticism of the Government, Ms Lamont said there is still some common ground.
"We are proud of our record in delivering on equality when we introduced civil partnerships, and (Deputy First Minister) Nicola Sturgeon has my support on her equal marriage proposals," she said.
"I also note that the Children's Bill will contain measures that will safeguard vulnerable children, something the First Minister knows will be welcomed on this side of the chamber. The challenge is to ensure these schemes are practical, not theoretical, and actually deliver to protect vulnerable children."
Ms Lamont concluded by appealing to the SNP leadership to speak to opposition parties to ensure a fair referendum in 2014.
"I may disagree with Alex Salmond on the constitution. That can be an honourable disagreement." she said. "What depresses me is that he will not use the power he already has to help Scotland now, today. This legislative programme might be a nationalist one but it is not one of a patriot who cares about Scotland's needs."
Conservative leader Ruth Davidson accused Mr Salmond of "rushing towards the buffet table and avoiding the negotiating table", citing a range of champagne receptions he attended over the summer while Westminster was pressing for progress on the referendum.
"The First Minister dresses this up as a legislative programme about the economy. But rather, it is a programme dominated by one thing and one thing only: the Scottish Government's obsession with tearing apart the United Kingdom, and one which singularly fails to address the most pressing concerns of the Scottish people," said Miss Davidson.
She drew jeers from the SNP benches when she hailed the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat Unionist alliance's efforts to draft a single, "fair" referendum question, which was met with "a flat refusal" from the Scottish Government.
Miss Davidson later distanced herself from her Better Together bedfellows in Labour. "I don't want to be wholly negative. I'm not the leader of the Labour Party after all," she said.
"I'm pleased to see that SNP has found room for measures to reform the Freedom of Information Act and perhaps in future we might even see the Scottish Government accept the rulings of the FoI Commissioner, rather than mount costly appeals to try and block the release of information on whether or not ministers sought legal advice on the status of an independent Scotland within the EU, all at the taxpayers' expense."
Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie said the SNP now appears to "fear its own policy" of independence.
"They spend more time arguing for a second question that they don't support than independence that they apparently do. And now they are redefining independence at a ferocious rate to include more and more of the British state that they have previously demonised," he said.
But he applauded Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for her "courage" in bringing forward the Marriage and Civil Partnership Bill. "With scares about brothers marrying, premature death, job losses and polygamy, the more that those opposed to equal marriage protest the stronger the case becomes," Mr Rennie said.
SNP MSP John Mason turned his attention to the legislation for same-sex marriage. Mr Mason, who is opposed to the move, welcomed assurances that a free vote on the laws will be given.
"It is not my aim to try and force Christian values on the wider society against their will. The key for me in all of this continues to be, if we are to have same-sex legislation introduced, will freedom of speech and freedom of religion be maintained?" he said.
Scotland For Marriage has campaigned against the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Commenting on the announcement of a Bill, a spokesman for the group said: "We will continue to fight with every breath to preserve the existing definition of marriage and have prepared a concerted programme of action designed to spearhead the growing opposition in the country, which is not being reflected by MSPs who demonstrate an increasing remoteness from the views of ordinary men and women they fail to represent."
Green party co-leader Patrick Harvie said: "The two highest profile Bills being announced today have the strong support of the Scottish Greens. The introduction of the Referendum Bill will signal the beginning of the most important period of recent Scottish history: the debate about the future of our country.
"That debate must engage with the competing visions of the kind of country we want to become, and the Bill to allow same-sex marriage is an important part of that agenda. It will continue Scotland's progress toward a modern, inclusive and progressive society that values equality and diversity."
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore welcomed the announcement of a Referendum Bill. "It is high-time we sorted out the referendum process and got on to the real debate about Scotland's future. The Scottish Government's own timetable means it is now imperative that we finalise the arrangements for the referendum as soon as possible."
Alistair Darling, chairman of Better Together, the campaign group against independence, said: "The Scottish Government promised us a referendum. They should make good on that promise. Today they announced they will bring forward a Referendum Bill to the Scottish Parliament, sometime in the next year. There is no reason for further delay."