EDMONTON – From a sinking economy to a looming showdown with labour, government MLAs have a lot of on their plates as the spring session of the legislature launches with a speech from the throne this week.Government House Leader Brian Mason says legislation to implement the carbon tax plan, and changes to agencies, boards and commissions are also on the agenda. While all sides hope to see better decorum in the house, the session does seem to be set up for lots of heated debate.Here are five things to watch for: Story continues below
“It’s a hell of a lot of money”Finance Minister Joe Ceci has already warned Albertans that when he tables his second budget in early April the deficit is going to top $10 billion, double what was originally forecast at the end of October. Slumping oil prices are squarely to blame, leading to a further $6.4-billion drop in government revenues.READ MORE: Alberta on track for record deficit, says finance minister There will be heated debate about where to find savings. The government has already said it does not intend to slash spending, instead choosing to invest.“We’re not going to be laying off people and destabilizing our services in this province,” Ceci said during a media conference Feb. 24. “It would just put more people on the unemployment lines.”The Wildrose Party has been pushing the NDP to shrink the size of government through wage freezes, attrition and early retirements.“Nobody is blaming them for the oil price, but how they’ve responded to the situation is hurting Alberta’s economy,” Wildrose MLA Prasad Panda told the media Feb. 24.The economyThe economy will likely be brought up almost every day during Question Period as the government faces an economy that will be in recession for a second straight year for the first time since the early 1980s. Total employment is down by 35,000 year over year, and the unemployment rate stands at 7.4 per cent.“Our government will continue to set its sights on job creation and promoting economic development, diversification and getting a pipeline built to tidewater,” Government House Leader Brian Mason said Monday morning.READ MORE: Alberta bears brunt of January job losses as oil rout cuts across economy The opposition has said the government has done more harm than good to Alberta’s economy, and rolling back taxes would be a good first step to kick start a recovery.“There’s no question that the tax increases on personal tax and corporate tax has absolutely driven away investment and made it more difficult to start a business, more difficult to diversify the economy,” said Alberta Party leader Greg Clark.Essential servicesThe NDP’s relationship with organized labour will face its first major test with the introduction of essential services legislation. Right now, around 145,000 public sector workers are banned from striking, but a Supreme Court decision on the right to strike has forced a change.“We will be trying to focus on people who are truly essential, and to provide arrangements for the provision of services in the event of a labour action,” Mason said when asked how the government approaches the legislation philosophically.With the impact of the low price of oil on government revenue, the NDP has said unions shouldn’t expect to see big wage increases during contract negotiations.LGBTQ policiesFor the second straight spring, LGBTQ policies will be front and centre in the legislature. Last year, it was legislation requiring schools to allow the formation of gay-straight alliances. This year, the issue is protection of transgender students. By the end of March, Alberta’s 61 school boards are all expected to draft inclusion policies.READ MORE: Alberta tells all school boards to create LGBTQ-inclusive policies In January, Education Minister David Eggen released a series of guidelines, outlining things like which washrooms students can use and which sports they can play. It led to a scathing letter from the Bishop of Calgary.“This approach and directive smack of the madness of relativism and the forceful imposition of a particular narrow-minded anti-catholic ideology,” wrote Bishop F.B. Henry.The minister has since met with the Catholic bishops, and both sides have agreed to work together to form policies, although Eggen hasn’t said what he would do if boards fail to meet the deadline.Calgary byelectionIn just two weeks, voters in Calgary-Greenway will elect a new representative. The byelection was called after the tragic loss of PC MLA Manmeet Bhullar, who died in a traffic accident near Red Deer in November.Byelection day is March 22, and the results could give pundits insight into the public’s mood towards the NDP government, and the unite-the-right movement started by Wildrose leader Brian Jean.
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