Saint John issues special request to MLAs

Saint John councillors are asking the legislative assembly to hold a special sitting in January to pass changes to the city's pension law.

City council asks MLAs to return in January to pass special pension changes

Saint John council is asking the New Brunswick legislature to hold a special sitting early in the new year to deal with the city's pension crisis.

The city has missed the deadline to get its pension legislation into the house before the Christmas break so it is turning to an unusual request for special help.

Coun. Christopher Titus authored the formal request to the legislature on Monday that asks MLAs to have a special January sitting to look at a single issue.

"In January or whatever, at their choosing, so that we can have a resolution to this as soon as possible," Titus said at a city council meeting on Monday night.

When MLAs leave Fredericton in December, the cabinet ministers start preparing for the spring session that returns in March. In particular, Finance Minister Blaine Higgs conducts a pre-budget tour around the province in preparation for the March budget.

It is rare, although not unprecedented, that MLAs return in January to conclude legislative business that did not finish in December.

The Bernard Lord government brought back the legislature in January 2002 so it could pass its legislation to establish the Regional Health Authorities and the Shawn Graham government brought the legislature back in January 2010 so it could continue dealing with the proposed sale of NB Power.

The legislature can be recalled on short notice for specific bills. For instance, the Lord government recalled the legislature twice in its first mandate to deal with back-to-work legislation to end public sector strikes.

Work to be done

But before the legislature can be recalled, Saint John has to finish arranging the proper notifications so the bill can be introduced.

Saint John must conduct a three-week public notice period before it can table a private member’s bill in the legislature that will amend its employee pension plan. But that process has not yet been launched.

A lot is at stake for the city. Saint John council cannot approve its 2012 budget until it knows whether millions of dollars in planned cuts to its employee pension fund will be approved.

The city hopes to cut $75-million out of its $163-million pension deficit by ending cost of living increases in the pension plan for workers and suspending them for retirees.

The plan was created by an act of the legislature and the cuts cannot be made without its approval.

Any bill can be completed within a day but it takes co-operation from all 55 MLAs. A bill can move from each legislative stage with unanimous consent of the legislature otherwise it can take at least one day for the bill to move to each stage.

However, the process can be slowed down if the opposition has problems with the changes or government members want to debate the issue.

A private member’s bill must also go before a legislative committee for hearings. Again, that step could be moved along quickly if all parties were in agreement.

The Tory caucus should be well briefed on the pension crisis. A Progressive Conservative MLA holds every seat from Saint John. As well, Glen Tait and Carl Killen are former Saint John city councillors.

But the process could be slowed down if either the Progressive Conservatives or the Liberals are concerned about the public reaction of rushing the process through.

The city's estimated 1,600 workers and its retirees have vowed to lobby the provincial government to keep their cost-of-living increases.

City officials have said the only other options to deal with the deficit would be major service cuts, or a tax hike of well over $200 a year on an average home. Several city councillors have said property taxes will not be increased to cover off the pension shortfall.

The provincial government and city management have been negotiating a solution to the pension crisis for a year.

Saint John initially requested the provincial government extend the payback period to 25 years on its pension deficit. But the provincial government rejected that plan in the spring.