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Highlights from the legislature

November 17, 2015 Shelley Svidal, ATA News Staff

“I will not break contracts”—Finance Minister Joe Ceci

The legislative assembly reconvened Oct. 26 for its fall sitting, which is expected to run through to December. Here are highlights of some of the education issues raised in question period and other proceedings between Oct. 26 and Nov. 5, when the assembly adjourned for a constituency week.

Public service compensation

Oct. 28—Manmeet Bhullar (PC—Calgary-Greenway) stated that, while the government plans to borrow for operating expenses, the provincial budget projects a $1 billion increase in public sector wages. He asked President of Treasury Board and Minister of Finance Joe Ceci to admit that increasing operating expenses without the money to pay for them will push the province further into a structural deficit.

Ceci responded that, once the contracts negotiated by the previous government come open, the government will negotiate fairly with its unions while ensuring that its budget targets are achieved. Bhullar asked Ceci whether the almost $25 billion allocated in the provincial budget for salaries is for new wages for new employees or for wage increases for existing employees.

“The labour costs in this budget are the most significant, largest cost, of course,” Ceci replied. “We have a number of contracts that are coming open for negotiation. We have to meet our two per cent growth overall, year over year over year, and we have to look at our wages as being a part of that.”

Oct. 28—Derek Fildebrandt (W—Strathmore–Brooks) noted that the provincial budget projects a $2.2 billion increase in government sector pay and benefits. He asked Ceci whether he considers the increase reasonable, given that private sector workers are losing their jobs. Ceci replied that, once contracts come open for negotiation, the government will look to ensure that they fit its budget. Fildebrandt asked Ceci to commit to freezing government sector pay and benefits until the provincial budget is balanced.

“Contracts are there to be respected,” Ceci replied. “We’re not going to break contracts because the member opposite wants us to break them.” Fildebrandt again asked Ceci to commit to freezing government sector compensation. “No. I will not break contracts, and I will not do illegal things with labour in this province,” Ceci replied.

Student engagement

Nov. 2—The legislative assembly unanimously agreed to a private member’s motion intended to foster student engagement in democratic governance at the school board level. Sponsored by Thomas Dang (ND—Edmonton-South West), Motion 503 urges the government “to consult with school boards and youth to encourage senior high school student participation on boards with a view to increasing dialogue, increasing student engagement in board policy and planning, and educating students about democratic governance.”

School nutrition programs

Nov. 4—Jamie Kleinsteuber (ND—Calgary-Northern Hills) asked Minister of Education David Eggen what the government is doing to support school nutrition programs. Eggen replied that his ministry is determining where the programs are so that the government can bolster them and create a more coherent provincewide program. Kleinsteuber asked Eggen to describe some of the existing school nutrition programs.

Eggen replied that E4C, a non-profit charitable organization, provides 2,000 hot lunches per day in 10 Catholic schools in Edmonton and that Northland School Division provides free hot lunches on request to all students. Kleinsteuber asked Eggen whether his ministry is looking to other ministries for support in improving student nutrition. Eggen replied that his ministry is looking to partner with the ministries of Health and Human Services to build a coherent, long-term strategy for providing targeted school lunch programs across the province.

Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta

Nov. 5—Mark Smith (W—Drayton Valley Devon) reported that the Public School Boards’ Association of Alberta had unanimously passed a motion to raise approximately $1.2 million from its member boards to take Lakeland Roman Catholic Separate School District to court to prevent it from opening a Catholic school in Lac La Biche. He asked Eggen whether school boards should be using government funds to go to court.

Eggen replied that, after the issue had arisen the preceding evening during consideration of his department’s estimates, “I had a call into the public school association, and they did not create a fund, and they are emphatically not saying that they would do so.” Smith asked Eggen whether taxpayers’ dollars should be used to challenge the right of families to choose Catholic education. Eggen responded by suggesting that Smith was inflaming an already sensitive situation. Smith asked Eggen whether he would intervene to ensure that education grants are used for the education of students.

“We made the call during supply last night to make sure that, in fact, this fund was not created at all. We spoke to them at length,” Eggen replied. He repeated his suggestion that Smith was inflaming the situation. “It’s a big mistake,” Eggen said.

Calgary Young Offender Centre

Nov. 5—Robyn Luff (ND—Calgary-East) asked Minister of Justice and Solicitor General Kathleen Ganley why the government had reversed the decision of the previous government to close the Calgary Young Offender Centre. Ganley replied that the government believes it is critical to keep vulnerable young people near their families and communities. Luff asked Ganley to describe the implications of the decision for the provincial budget. Ganley replied that the $3 million cost of keeping the centre open “is an extremely small price to pay to ensure that these young people can stay close to their communities and have the support they need from their families to make better choices going forward so that they can become productive members of our society.” ❚

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