5 issues to heat up the Alberta legislature spring session

WATCH ABOVE: Provincial Affairs reporter Tom Vernon walks us through the top issues expected to dominate Alberta’s spring session.

EDMONTON — Alberta MLAs will be back in the legislature Tuesday afternoon for what promises to be a lively spring session. Quite a bit has changed since the fall sitting ended.  The PC caucus now has 70 members after it welcomed nine more MLAs from the Wildrose Party, including leader Danielle Smith.  That leaves a reduced opposition tasked with holding the government to account.

Here are five things to watch for this session:

Budget 2015

On March 26, Finance Minister Robin Campbell will table the 2015 budget, along with that $7-billion hole Albertans have heard so much about from him and Premier Jim Prentice. Watch for fee and tax increases combined with significant cuts.

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“Probably in the neighbourhood of nine-per-cent reductions for ’15-’16 in government spending,” Campbell told the legislative press gallery in early February when asked what spending cuts might look like.

While it’s been made clear corporate tax rates won’t be touched, several trial balloons have been floated to gauge public reaction to new personal taxes, including re-introducing healthcare premiums or implementing a provincial sales tax.

Relationship with labour

Prentice has put contract negotiations with public sector unions in the crosshairs as a way to find more cost certainty for the government.

“We need a much more disciplined and coordinated approach to public sector bargaining in the province,” the premier told a Rotary Club lunch crowd in Edmonton last week. “Clearly the provincial government needs to be at the centre of this.”

Prentice says large, one-off settlements during negotiations have lead to the highest public sector wages in Canada, and he believes it simply isn’t sustainable.  He has tasked a working group to look at ways to keep wage offers more in line with government expectations.

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Organized labour has already started pushing back, warning against giving politicians too much power in the negotiation process.

“What we’re talking about here — and let’s be very clear about this — is a dramatic centralization of responsibility for bargaining with public sector workers and their unions,” Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan said.  “It’s going to be centralized into the hands of the premier.”

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Can the opposition be effective?

Since Prentice took over as premier in September, the opposition has seen a dramatic shift.

The Wildrose Party has dropped from 17 seats to five, losing eleven members to the PCs including leader Danielle Smith.  The party has held onto its official Opposition status and is now lead by retiring MLA Heather Forsyth. Three people have put their names forward in an abbreviated leadership race, which will be decided March 28.

An interim leader is also at the helm of the five-member Liberal party caucus after Raj Sherman suddenly relinquished the job in February and announced he will not run again.  David Swann will lead the Liberals for a year as the party works to organize a full leadership race.  Two other members, Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang, have also announced they will not seek re-election as they intend to run for the Liberals federally.

The Alberta New Democrats perhaps find themselves in the strongest position.  They are united under new leader Rachel Notley, who won the party’s top job in October, and all four members plan to run again in the next election.

Gay-straight student alliances

The first major misstep of the Prentice government in the fall session was how it handled the debate around gay-straight alliances in Alberta schools. The premier’s office confirms GSAs will be on the agenda this spring.

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The issue came to the forefront after Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman introduced private member’s bill 202, which would have forced all Alberta school boards to allow a gay-straight alliance if students wished to form one.

In response, the government introduced Bill 10, which was widely panned for not going far enough.  The bill still left the power to decide whether a club could be formed in the hands of individual school boards, but gave students the right to a legal challenge. After pushback, that section was changed to allow the education minister to intervene on behalf of students, but didn’t guarantee the GSA would be allowed on school property. The premier eventually pulled the bill just four days after it was introduced.

Blakeman has made it clear she’ll push the government to introduce legislation more in line with her original proposal.

“It’s time for the premier to act in the best interest of Alberta students, and pass the kind of legislation we are advocating for,” she said in a statement last week.

Election 2015

The worst-kept secret in Alberta politics is that we are likely heading to a spring election, despite legislation that says one is not due for another year.

The PC party has made a push to nominate candidates in all 87 constituencies by the end of March, and the premier has said on a number of occasions that he will need a mandate from Albertans to implement the changes that will be proposed in the budget.

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In response, the Wildrose Party moved its leadership vote up to March 28, and the Liberals named outgoing leader Raj Sherman as their campaign manager.

With an overwhelming majority, and strong numbers in the polls, the 44-year-old PC government will be in a very good position to sweep to another majority, but the opposition parties will have some ammunition.  Spending cuts to public services will be a rallying point for organized labour, while the Wildrose has already signalled it will run on a promise to not raise taxes.

WATCH: Robert Murray from the Frontier Centre for Public Policy joins the Morning News to discuss what is expected to be a short session, followed by an election in April.

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