5 storylines to watch as Sask. legislative sitting begins
Provincial budget to be released on March 23
The Saskatchewan spring legislative sitting begins Monday and there are plenty of issues to be discussed.
The pandemic continues to cause high hospitalizations, the provincial budget will be released in three weeks and the opposition NDP is in the early stages of a leadership race.
Here are five storylines to watch for over the next 11 weeks.
The spring sitting of the legislature is always highlighted by the release of the budget. The government has said there will be a deficit, but will it be larger than last year's record projection?
This year, the budget announcement is back on schedule after two years of pandemic interruptions.
The 2020-21 budget was released in two parts due to the pandemic. While last year's budget was released in early April. The 2022-23 budget will be released at its more regularly scheduled time on March 23.
Last spring, Finance Minister Donna Harpauer announced a projected $2.6 billion deficit, the highest in provincial history. November's mid-year financial update pushed the projection to $2.7 billion.
In November, Harpauer hinted that spending in this year's budget would be modest.
Revenues were higher than projected due to higher prices in potash and oil.
Harpauer said on budget day in April 2021 that the province would not be able to reach a balance until 2026-27.
A year earlier and fewer than two months before the election, Harpauer said balance would be achievable by 2024-25.
One major budget question is how the finance ministry will handle the recent economic impacts of the conflict in Ukraine.
Wheat futures surged to $10 a bushel on Tuesday – the highest price in 14 years. Shares in Saskatoon-headquartered Nutrien Ltd., the largest fertilizer producer in the world, keep rising as well.
The Alberta government introduced its 2022-23 budget on Feb. 23, just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, projecting a surplus for the first time in eight years.
Alberta's Finance Minister Travis Toews said the province was "relying on the energy industry" to hit targets.
Alberta's budget projected West Texas Intermediate oil price to average $70 per barrel over the next year.
Alberta is projecting $62 billion in revenue, with $13 billion or 20 per cent coming via non-renewable resources.
For comparison, Saskatchewan's 2021-22 budget projected WTI at $53 per barrel. On budget day, it was $59.
As of Friday, WTI has risen to $111 per barrel, reaching levels not seen in more than eight years.
Saskatchewan has reduced its revenue reliance on non-renewable resources in recent years.
In the 2021-22 budget, non-renewables accounted for nine per cent of revenue, down from about 21 per cent a decade earlier.
Emergency order stays, health orders disappear
Premier Scott Moe signed an order-in-council extending the government's emergency order to deal with the pandemic, while letting all other public health measures expire on Feb. 28.
The order gives the Saskatchewan Health Authority the ability to move health care workers around to respond to COVID-19.
The opposition has been critical of the government's management of the pandemic and the decision to be the only province to stop doing daily public COVID-19 reporting.
The now-weekly reports contain information that is a week old, with the main exception being the number of patients hospitalized.
This could affect the debate in the assembly, as the province has been releasing its weekly COVID numbers on Thursday afternoon. This will be after question period has wrapped for the week on Thursday mornings.
Data up to Feb. 26 shows that by total deaths, February was the third deadliest month of the pandemic, trailing October and January 2021. But with fewer days, the province averaged 5.5 deaths per day in February, which is a higher rate than October 2021.
Hospitalizations remain high, with more than 353 in care and 30 patients in ICU, an increase of three from the previous week.
Meanwhile, emergency room visits for children under the age of five has spiked in recent weeks.
If the previous sitting of the legislature is any indication, the Opposition is likely to continue raising the domino effect of COVID-19 related hospitalizations on other health-care services that have been delayed or cancelled.
The provincial government continues to spend millions on pandemic-related costs.
On Feb. 17, the cabinet approved a special warrant to spend $112.8 million on COVID-19. The expense was "urgently needed and immediately required for the public good."
War in Ukraine
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is also likely to be raised during the sitting.
Moe has asked for "severe and immediate sanctions" on Russia from Canada and other nations, while also calling for Russian energy products to no longer be imported to Canada.
On Thursday, provincial Minister for Immigration Jeremy Harrison said the province will, "open our doors to an unlimited number of Ukrainians affected by the conflict, and we want to open those doors expeditiously."
The government said it will "prioritize any applications received from Ukrainian citizens to the Saskatchewan Immigrant Nominee Program (SINP)."
The province has also pledged $100,000 to support humanitarian efforts in Ukraine, SaskTel has waived long distance and text messaging fees.
The Opposition has said it wants a bipartisan approach to addressing the war in Ukraine. Opposition finance critic Trent Wotherspoon said on Tuesday, "we should be working together right now to be assessing all the levers that we have, all the options that we have to end this illegal invasion."
Wotherspoon mentioned the provincial government putting any economic pressure on Russia it can and helping to quickly settle Ukrainian refugees in Saskatchewan.
Opposition leadership race
The NDP is in the process of finding a new leader.
Ryan Meili announced his resignation on Feb. 18, but will remain leader for the upcoming sitting.
The party will vote on his replacement in late June.
On Thursday, Regina Lakeview MLA Carla Beck became the first person to enter the race.
She was endorsed by fellow Regina caucus members Wotherspoon, Nicole Sarauer and Aleana Young.
Beck said she plans to campaign across Saskatchewan during the next few months and that she wants to unify the party and attract new members.
The major question is who will join her in the leadership contest.
The last time the party acclaimed a leader was Roy Romanow in 1987.
One piece of legislation to keep an eye on is the proposed Bill 70, which would see the current security structure at the legislature revamped for the first time in more than 37 years.
Last month, sergeant-at-arms Terry Quinn resigned from his position after serving for more than five years.
The bill would remove most of the duties of the sergeant and his staff and replace them with a security team answerable to the government and not the speaker, as it is under the current reporting structure.
The Opposition has said the bill would create a "partisan" security force. The government has said changes are needed to respond to threats more proactively.
The bill will be debated in committee and the government has shown no signs of holding back on its eventual passage later this spring.
with files from CBC's Yasmine Ghania