After weeks of discussion and multiple calls from the opposition for accountability, the legislature will return this June.
The ruling Saskatchewan Party and opposition NDP issued a joint press release Tuesday announcing the 14-day session. Sittings will begin on June 15 and end July 3 with sittings from Monday to Friday. There will be not sitting on Canada Day. Only 10 government MLAs and five members of the opposition will be in the assembly at any time to ensure safe physical distancing.
The Minister of Finance will table the 2020-21 provincial budget on June 15, and there will be 60 hours of scrutiny of the budget estimates in legislative committees in the following days. The final budget vote will take place on July 2.
While the budget will be the shortened session’s main priority, the government may conduct other business if it has time.
“This will be by far the most extensive scrutiny of any budget in any house of this nation since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Premier Scott Moe told reporters Tuesday.
“This is positive, positive for this province and positive for the people of Saskatchewan.”
The NDP has been calling for some form of accountability, whether it is in a joint committee or a modified return to the legislature, for weeks. A government proposal that would have seen just a few days of sitting was seen by the NDP as woefully insufficient.
“We made the reasonable offer to go 14 days with 14 question periods, and seeing the reasonableness of that, the government acquiesced,” said Cathy Sproule, opposition house leader.
“We were left hanging when we were shut down on March 18. We were very anxious to put questions to the government and ensure that they are accountable to the people of Saskatchewan.”
Prior to the house adjourning on March 18, spending estimates were presented. The half-budget was never voted on, and the funding was allocated through the use of special warrants.
The NDP was concerned that it wouldn’t get to question the Saskatchewan Party in the legislature again before this fall’s election, especially with comments made by the premier that he hadn’t considered reconvening the legislature.
Sproule credited the pressure from the public and the focus of her party to demand accountability and scrutiny, “which is absolutely required in any legislature.”
Details of who exactly will be in the legislature, and how the committee set up are going to look, haven’t yet been established, but Sproule is confident the deal will have enough flexibility for MLAs to have their voices heard and for the right people to be asked the right questions.
If residents are concerned about having a voice, she said, they should speak to their MLA.
Sask. Party MLAs have the ear of the premier, she argued, while opposition members will ask questions they need to. She said some of those questions will include efforts to hold the government accountable on behalf of northern residents, many of whom she said feel ignored.
Speaking about the arrangement Tuesday, Moe touted the budget his government will present in just a few weeks.
“This is a budget that is focused on building a strong Saskatchewan, and it provides the first steps to achieving the targets we set out in our (ten-year) plan for growth,” he said.
“It’s a strong budget and we look forward to presenting it to the public, as well as debating it in the legislative assembly next month.”
Moe said the budget will be built off of the spending estimates set out in March, with a few changes.
“I envision it to look very similar, but different, to what a normal budget process will look like,” Moe said.
“There will be some additions made with respect to self-isolation support for example or the small business emergency grant we put in place or the infrastructure investment we have.”
The budget will also include the best estimate as to the state of Saskatchewan’s revenue, based on projections form the Ministry of Finance.
“What we are going to experience this year is a pandemic deficit,” Moe said, “primarily attributed to a lowering of the revenue.”
Spending, so far, has remained intact, the premier said, praising government ministries of ensuring they only spend what was allocated to them.
“It will all be built off of essentially what was tabled on March 18.”
At the time of that budget, the NDP called for it to be scrapped as there would be no way a budget put together before the pandemic could adequately account for what was needed in terms of spending or what the revenue would look like.
Sproule, though, is confident that the ministry of finance can project, to some extent, what that now looks like.
“We will be three months into this new world. Absolutely the folks over in finance have the ability to do forecasting, and I think some things have settled down for sure,” she said.
“We’ll already be three months into the budget by the time it gets approved, so already much of that spending has panned. The government has made it pretty clear what they intend to do on that side. The forecast for revenues is something we’re very interested in.”
Sproule said the NDP will also look to what private-sector lenders are calling for in terms of assumptions and various forecasts, mostly, though, she said the NDP will focus on what they believe is best for Saskatchewan residents.
“What we really need to see is a plan to get people back to work,” Sproule said.
“People were hurting before COVID hit, so we need to ensure that whatever happens afterwards, the people of Saskatchewan are taken care of and made the first priority.”