February 28, 2019 6:49 pm
Updated: March 5, 2019 8:03 am

Budget and political fighting expected when Sask. legislative assembly returns

Saskatchewan's MLAs are preparing to return to Regina for their spring setting, which is expected to be dominated by the budget and pre-election arguing. David Baxter reports.

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Saskatchewan’s MLAs are preparing to return to Regina, as the spring sitting of the assembly beings on Monday, March 4.

A lot has changed since this time last year. Scott Moe had only been premier for about a month and the NDP leadership vote that made Ryan Meili party leader, had not happened yet.

Now, both leaders are well established in their positions and getting their parties ready for the 2020 election campaign.

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The October 2020 vote may still be about a year-and-a-half away, but Leader Post political columnist Murray Mandryk expects that election to cast a long shadow.

“It’s absolutely that gear up to the election time when, if nothing else, they have to start practicing for that particular bout,” Mandryk said.

“There are some pretty severe and steep differences between the NDP and the Sask. Party right now, and we’re not seeing ponied up arguments – we’re seeing passionate debates from both sides on their issues.”

READ MORE: Sask. equivalency agreement on extending coal power likely pushed back

A divisive issue expected to be part of question period debates, the Brandt/Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) building in Regina’s Wascana Park.

A CBC investigation uncovered that the $1 lease at the now demolished CNIB building will carry-over to the four-storey, Brandt owed facility to be built in the park. The CNIB will be a tenant in the Brandt property.

“Certain people seem to be getting special treatment and special considerations just to allow this structure to go forward. I think this story now has traction and legs it didn’t before,” Mandryk said.

“It’s got the smell of something where an opposition should really be able to make hay with this stuff,” University of Regina political science department head Jim Farney said.

“It’s not enough for an opposition party to say there’s something wrong here, but everything else is ok. It’s there’s something wrong here and we can deliver something better. For me the NDP question, this session, is can they do that?”

The budget

The biggest day on the legislative calendar is March 20, budget day. Finance Minister Donna Harpauer expects to deliver a balanced budget, wiping out a $348 million deficit and fulfilling a three-year promise to return to balance.

Past budgets have included increased and expanded sales taxes plus spending cuts to get out of a then over billion-dollar deficit.

However, the government coffers have been aided by larger-than-expected non-renewable resource revenue and a one-time pension adjustment last year.

“The question is, are they back to a structural balance? Have they gotten back to a structural balance?” Farney said. “Have they gotten back to where they said they needed to be without any of those one-year only sorts of things?”

READ MORE: Sask. government approves $194M in new spending ahead of budget

Farney is also curious to see how the public sector is funded, following the province’s unsuccessful plan to reduce compensation by 3.5 per cent as a cost-saving effort.

“They really can’t raise taxes anymore, they really can’t be in a position to keep cutting things because that’s not going to put them in good stead going into an election year next year,” Mandryk said.

Both Fanrey and Mandryk don’t expect major spending announcements in the 2019/20 budget, speculating the Saskatchewan Party government will save that until their pre-election budget next year.

Legislation expected to pass

Once the budget is delivered, it will shape much of the legislative agenda going forward.

Pieces of legislation introduced in the fall are expected to pass, especially with a strong Sask. Party majority.

This includes changes to the Trespass Act, making it so people seeking access to rural land need to get the owner’s permission first. Currently, it is the responsibility of rural landowners to put up fences, post their land, or have “no trespassing” signs.

This legislation has faced criticism from hunting groups like the Saskatchewan Wildlife Federation, saying it is becoming increasingly difficult to track down rural landowners.

READ MORE: Sask. organization concerned trespassing change will impact wildlife population controls

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations has also discussed a legal challenge, saying these changes violate treaty rights.

Justice Minister Don Morgan has said that treaty rights around hunting will not be affected on Crown land, but those rights do not extend to private property.

Assuming it passes, Saskatchewan will be the first Canadian jurisdiction to adopt the British Clare’s Law. This would allow people to ask police to reveal charges related to domestic abuse for an intimate partner.

READ MORE: Sask. government introduces domestic violence police disclosure legislation

Saskatchewan routinely has among the highest domestic violence rates in Canada.

The legislative session is scheduled to run for 10 weeks, concluding May 16. The house takes an extended recess on the week of April 22 for Easter.

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