As Sask. session resumes, opposition eyes healthcare while government readies budget

Bill 70, which is expected to pass this spring, will reform security in the legislative building and on the surrounding grounds. File / Global News

The spring period of the second session of the 29th legislative assembly of Saskatchewan begins Monday.

Interim opposition leader Ryan Meili says that for his party, the sitting will provide an opportunity to critique the government’s pandemic and healthcare record while bringing new approaches to improving healthcare in Saskatchewan.

“A lot of work needs to be done to point out what’s wrong and come up with the ideas to fix healthcare,” Meili told Global news Friday, adding that cost of living is another subject likely to come up in question period exchanges.

“We also know that people are struggling to make ends meet. We need to look at how this government can help.”

Read more: Saskatchewan Drug Task Force community engagement results released

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Meili said that, in particular, Saskatchewan electors can expect to see continued NDP scrutiny of COVID-19 death, case and hospitalization trends as was frequently seen during the fall sitting. Government spending plans ahead of the upcoming budget will be under the microscope.

“We had one of the deadliest months on record from COVID-19. We get periodic information, and no regular updates on what’s happening with COVID. Access to testing isn’t what it should be. So, we’re going to continue to call for answers and action appropriate to those answers,” Meili said.

“We’ve seen prices in commodities rise. That’s going to give us an opportunity to have more dollars available to invest. I want to make sure that those dollars are invested in the right places.”

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NDP Health Critic Vicki Mowat in a Sunday interview said that with over 30,000 people awaiting surgery in Saskatchewan, she’ll be pushing for a more ambitious plan to reduce the backlog.

“They’re talking about getting there in nine years. It’s completely unfeasible for people who are struggling today and waiting for a knee surgery or a hip surgery,” Mowat said.

She added that issues with short-staffing are also a key concern.

“It comes down to having a big picture strategy. We’ve called for some time for a health human resources roundtable that would bring together people from post-secondary institutions, the relevant ministries, so Education and Health, and also unions to come up with an overall strategy,” said Mowat.

“How many nurses are we going to need? Do we have the spots to train those people and do we have a plan to get them into those jobs. Do we have good, fulltime jobs for people to take across the province, and once they’re in those jobs is it appropriate for their scope? Are they being mentored and set up for success? It’s about making sure the training is there, that recruiting happens and that we can retain those people.”

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When it comes to specific ways to make life in Saskatchewan more affordable, NDP SaskPower critic Aleana Young said she’ll be pressing the government to consider utilizing its crown corporations to reduce costs for residents.

“When it comes to cost of living, while not everything is under government control, there are a few things that are. We’ve been consistent in our calls for SGI rebates and a rebalancing of rates for policy holders,” she said.

“In addition to that we have SaskPower coming forward with what will amount to an eight per cent increase for homeowners in the next 18 months. We will be pushing them to make sure they are being accountable to the people who they serve and keeping cost of living down for Saskatchewan people.”

Jennifer Bowes, who is undertaking the roles of labour critic and deputy house leader this sitting, said she’s hoping to bring her private members’ paid sick leave bill to a vote by the end of session.

The bill was introduced for the second time in the fall and would legislate 10 paid days of sick leave for all workers in Saskatchewan (and 14 during states of emergency due to communicable diseases).

“The plan is to make this a priority item again. This is something that our caucus has identified as a major need for Saskatchewan,” Bowes told Global News.

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“Less than half of Saskatchewan workers have paid sick leave and a lot of the workers that lack paid sick leave are in some of the lowest paid occupations in Saskatchewan. The people who need paid sick leave the most are often the ones who don’t have it.”

Debate on the bill, which received its first reading in November, has been adjourned.

“There’s been studies, notably out of BC, that have identified that 10 paid sick days would not have any significant effect on profitability for employers,” Bowes added.

“It’s a really good recruitment and retention benefit, as well. Paid sick leave should be a basic component of work for all working people. It’s something that is, in my mind, just as if not more important than paid vacation days which all employers are required to pay their employees.”

Read more: Saskatchewan recorded its third-highest monthly COVID-19 death total in February

Also thematic as lawmaking resumes is the search for the next leader of the Saskatchewan NDP.

Meili announced plans to step down from the leadership role last month, and so far the only person to publicly announce a plan to run for leader is Regina Lakeview MLA Carla Beck.

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A leadership convention has been tentatively scheduled by the Saskatchewan NDP for late June in Regina.

Health Minister Paul Merriman, meanwhile, said healthcare spending will be a key priority in the government’s upcoming budget, which will be released on March 23.

“We’ll have some announcements on several fronts as far as our budget. Surgical will be a priority. Mental health and addictions will be a priority,” Merriman said.

“We’re going to try to target some dollars to make sure that we’re reducing that backlog that we have accumulated during COVID.”

Meriman added that $20 million allocated for surgical initiatives two years ago will be carried forward to this year’s budget.

The government’s throne speech for the session also promised efforts to reduce crime, as well as provide new protections against the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.

The Privacy (Intimate Images—Additional Remedies) Amendment Act, 2021which expands the legislation “provide victims of the non-consensual sharing of intimate images with the power to reclaim their images and have them removed from the internet, is set to come into law in the legislature in the coming weeks.

Legislative observers can also expect further debate on the contentious Bill 70, which seeks to restructure security at the legislative building and grounds.

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A request for further comment from the Saskatchewan Party government was not returned in time for deadline.

The spring period includes ten weeks of sitting days and is scheduled to conclude on May 23.

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