© Guardian photo by Brian McInnis
A couple walk past the cenotaph and Province House during a lull in the storm in Charlottetown.
The first item of business in the spring sitting of the legislature is going to be the state of Province House, says Premier Robert Ghiz.
The house is back in session Wednesday with the provincial budget set for next Tuesday or Wednesday.
Ghiz said government will be introducing a non-partisan motion on the first day, calling on the federal government to “live up to their responsibility’’ in terms of fixing up the historic building.
“We know that it’s probably going to be $30-40 million and it will equate to a three- to five-year closedown of Province House,’’ the premier said Tuesday.
The building has been closed for several weeks after a chunk of plaster about the size of a pool table fell from the ceiling near one of the entrances. It was the latest in a string of problems at the historic building where emergency repairs were required on one of the exterior walls.
An engineering report Parks Canada commissioned determined extensive repairs and restoration work is needed to protect the building and address numerous issues, including a leaking roof and structural problems.
“Obviously it needs repairs; it needs updating,’’ the premier said.
Ghiz said while MLAs will sit in Province House for this session, Charles MacKay, clerk of the legislative assembly, is working on contingency plans that will likely see the legislature move to the Coles Building for the three-to-five-year rebuild.
The spring session, however, typically focuses on the budget, which will be brought down next week. The premier said it will emphasize deficit reduction while focusing on social programs such as health care and education, with a sprinkling of some new programs.
Approximately 20 pieces of legislation will be tabled, including changes to the Election Act and the Health Information Act. Proposed changes to the Lands Protection Act will be accompanied by actions to implement the first phase of the Carvers report.
In terms of the Election Act, Ghiz said government wants to make sure that the next provincial election, legislated to take place in the fall of 2015, doesn’t run up against the next federal vote.
“In the event that the federal election falls in the same time frame then our provincial election will be moved six months later to the spring of 2016 but that only happens if the federal election happens at the same time as ours.’’
Another item to keep an eye on is transportation spending, already $3 to $4 million over budget on snow clearing. That figure could climb considering P.E.I. has already been slammed with twice as much snow this winter as it usually gets.
“As a government we can’t just turn off the snowplows and keep them in the warehouse . . . so you can expect to see some cost overruns on our transportation budget this year.’’
Ghiz said the province is “tight in a lot of other areas and likely you’ll see some additional borrowing’’.
Opposition Leader Steven Myers said fiscal accountability is at the top of his agenda.
“We’re going to be hitting them hard on on how we’re going to balance the books in this province or if they plan on balancing the books,’’ Myers said.
The opposition also plans to hit issues such as addictions and the state of the education system.
Myers said he’s not surprised to see Ghiz talking about possibly borrowing money to deal with snow clearing cost overruns.
“It’s par for the course for this government. We’ve seen this numerous, numerous times and that’s why they’ve racked up a billion dollars worth of debt in seven years. When you borrow money you’re really kicking the can down the road so, in essence, what this government is doing is taking money from future generations.’’
Independent Progressive Conservative MLA Olive Crane said there needs to be new spending in the budget for Islanders who desperately need help.
“Many Islanders were not able to heat their homes this winter because of the increased costs of heating products, with most of these essential products like propane and electricity having the added costs of HST. Simply put, just too many islanders continue to struggle financially,” she said.
Crane also expects to see the “better tax solutions” promised by the finance minister who has told Islanders in the past that he has solutions to put more money in low-income Islander's pockets.
Crane said it’s time to rein in spending and get the fiscal house in order. It is also time to make smart decisions with new spending, protect the most vulnerable in society, and take action to protect our water, land and environment, she said.